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Notre Dame vs. Boston College: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Boston College: Keys to an Irish Win

The Eagles are hardly a popular opponent amongst Irish fans, mostly due to their penchant for dashing perfect seasons. Boston College played the role of spoiler against Lou Holtz’s undefeated and first-ranked squad in 1993, and initiated the late-season slide of Tyrone Willingham’s fourth-ranked, 8-0 team in 2002.

The Eagles’ recent success has been particularly consistent. Since 1999 Boston College has won seven of nine in the series, including six straight from 2001 to 2008, the last affair a shutout of the Irish in Chestnut Hill.

Coming off the disappointing performance against Stanford and entering the weekend at 1-3, Notre Dame is desperate for a win to provide tangible evidence of progress. Unfortunately, the Irish face a formidable opponent, on the road, and in a night game.

Boston College, Version 2010

Frank Spaziani is in his second year as head coach, but has 14 seasons of experience in Chestnut Hill. Nine of those were as defensive coordinator, first under Tom O’Brien and later under Jeff Jagodzinski. Not surprisingly, his two teams have been very stout on the defensive side of the ball.

Spaziani took over after the ugly dismissal of Jagodzinski, and largely transformed the program back to the model he learned under O’Brien. The blueprint is built on long-term development, as the overwhelming majority of starters are veteran players. Most were not highly rated recruits coming out of high school, but they nearly always play up to or beyond their potential, especially against the Irish.

This year’s veteran-laden squad is a disciplined unit—the team ranks in the top 25 in penalties and penalty yards per game—but does struggle with ball security. Boston College is +1 in turnover margin (42nd ranking), but should be much better. The defense ranks 8th in takeaways per game (nine in three outings), but the offense has surrendered eight turnovers (108th in turnovers per game).

Offense

The Eagle offense operates under the direction of second-year offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill. Tranquill has more than 40 years of college coaching experience including 14 as an offensive coordinator and five as the head coach at the Naval Academy.

The 2010 Eagle offense is off to a rough start. Against Kent State, Weber State, and Virginia Tech, Boston College has converted only 30.8 percent of third down attempts (107th ranking), managed to score a touchdown on only one of every four red zone opportunities (119), averaged only 21.3 points (90) and 322 yards (92) per game, and gained only 5.2 yards per play (78). Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster routinely fields a good defensive product, but Weber State and Kent State are hardly noteworthy opponents.

From a scheme perspective, Tranquill primarily employs a run-first offense, out of necessity if not by design. Since the departure of Matt Ryan there has been an absence of competent quarterback play for Boston College, forcing the offense to lean heavily on the running game.

Last year Tranquill experimented with Justin Tuggle and Mike Marscovetra before permanently handing the reigns to David Shinskie. Shinskie started the final 10 games of the season but the results weren’t overwhelmingly positive—he completed only 51.6 percent of his pass attempts, averaged just over 157 passing yards per game, and threw 14 interceptions compared to 15 touchdowns (119 passer efficiency). Of course, arguably his strongest outing of the year was in South Bend against the Irish.

Shinskie retained his starting status in the early going this year. But after underwhelming performances in the first two contests and a two-interception, no-touchdown game against Virginia Tech, Spaziani decided to make a change.

Tuggle transferred and is no longer an option and Marscovetra hasn’t played markedly better than Shinskie, so the word out of Chestnut Hill is that Chase Rettig will get the start Saturday night. The true freshman signal caller has yet to attempt a collegiate pass, but did enroll early and participate in spring practices.

Rettig will have the luxury of playing behind a physical and experienced offensive line anchored by Anthony Castonzo. The senior left tackle has started all 44 games of his career and is one of the highest projected linemen in next year’s draft.

Castonzo is joined by three-year starter Rich Lapham at the other tackle spot, and two-year starter Nathan Richman at center. Guards Mark Spinney and Emmett Cleary are new to the lineup, but both have three years in the program and Thomas Claiborne, who started 11 games in 2009 and 14 in 2008, can be called upon if needed. As a group, Castonzo, Lapham, Richman, Spinney, Cleary and Claiborn have combined for over 110 starts—more than any other offensive line the Irish will face in 2010—and all are upperclassmen.

Rettig is joined in the backfield by running back Montel Harris, a three-year starter who led the team in rushing yards each of the last two seasons. His 2009 numbers were particularly impressive (1,457 yards, 14 touchdowns, 4.7 yards per attempt) and he has started well this year (306 yards, 4.6 yards per carry).

The injury to wide receiver Colin Larmond left few proven receiving targets for Rettig, something that doesn’t bode well for the Eagle air attack. Larmond was the second leading receiver from last year’s team (29 receptions, 596 yards, 20.6 yards per reception, and five touchdowns) and one of the only returning options with any experience or production.

The rest of Rettig’s receivers lack any substantial production. Tight end Chris Pantale is back after ranking third on the team in receptions last year, but the production hasn’t carried over to this season. Redshirt sophomore Clyde Lee seems to be the go-to guy while redshirt freshman Johnathan Coleman is a deep threat (21.6 yards per reception), but Lee is the only receiver with double-digit receptions.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Eagle offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Boston College’s 2010 opponents excluding Weber State).

2010 Boston College Offensive Efficiency
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency30.710737.152
4th down efficiency100166.668
Red zone appearances/game4513.565
Red zone efficiency6711170.533
Red zone TD efficiency2511939.839
2010 Boston College Total Offense
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game21.39020.150
Touchdowns/game2.3962.337
Plays/game629465.551
Yards/game32292300.327
1st downs/game17.38917.450
Yards/play5.2784.631
2010 Boston College Rushing Offense
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game33.78732.426
Yards/game1159388.420
Yards/attempt3.4922.828
Fumbles340343
Attempts/fumble33.79041.745
TFL allowed/game6.3847.819
1st downs/game6995.717
Touchdowns/game0.3116134
2010 Boston College Passing Offense
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game28.37333.181
Completions/game15.78820.487
Yards/game20773211.966
Yards/attempt7.3596.446
Yards/completion13.22910.421
Interceptions584449
Attempts/interception1711433.169
Sacks allowed/game2.7902.729
Attempts/sack allowed10.69212.742
1st downs/game9.7609.875
Touchdowns/game1.7521.357
Completion %55.29161.681
Pass efficiency124.359122.246

Defense

On other side of the ball, Bill McGovern also returns for his second season at the coordinator position. McGovern has been with the Eagle defense for 10 years, ascending to defensive play-caller after coaching the linebackers while Spaziani was the defensive coordinator.

Because of this continuity, McGovern’s play-calling and defensive scheme is very similar to what Spaziani employed. The Eagles operate out a 4-3 alignment and frequently employ soft coverage aimed at forcing methodical, disciplined execution.

The results through the first three games have been very positive. The Eagles struggle somewhat on third down (39.6 percent, 69th ranking), but rank 8th in red zone touchdown efficiency and have allowed fewer than three red zone appearances per game. Additionally, Boston College has played very stout against the run, allowed only 17.3 points (32nd ranking) and 309.7 yards (35) per game, and 4.6 yards per play (25).

At first glance, the production against the pass appears poor, but this is partially by design. Boston College has surrendered nearly 240 yards (84) and over 10 first downs (83) per game through the air, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 64.8 percent of their passes while rarely getting pressure (103rd in attempts/sack). But the Eagles have only allowed two passing scores, held opponents to 10.5 yards per completion (26), and intercepted the ball once every 21 pass attempts (26).

From a personnel perspective, the strength of the defense is the linebacker corps. The unit contains the top three tacklers on the team and is led by sophomore Luke Keuchly and senior Mark Herzlich.

Keuchly started 12 games during his freshman campaign and was second in the country with 158 tackles while also leading the team with 13 tackles for a loss. The performance was good enough to garner ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and Freshman All-American honors and, thus far in 2010, he hasn’t slowed down. Keuchly already has 37 tackles (5th in the country) and 4.5 tackles for a loss.

Herzlich has also been productive in 2010 after missing last season battling cancer. The senior has an interception and 16 tackles of his own, and is the emotional leader of the defense. The outside backer position opposite Herzlich is manned by freshman Kevin Pierre-Louis. Like Keuchly, Pierre-Louis has played very well early in his career with 23 tackles in his first three games of action.

The defensive front consists of four veteran players in Alex Albright, Kaleb Ramsey, Damik Scafe, and Brad Newman. Newman, Scafe and Albright all started at least six games in 2009 while Ramsey notched three starts. Similar to the offensive front, all four players have at least three years in Chestnut Hill. Newman was the most active of the four last season, leading all defensive linemen with 45 tackles, while Albright holds the same honor this year with 13.

The defensive backfield consists of corners Donnie Fletcher and DeLeon Gause and safeties Dominick LeGrande and Wes Davis. The group combined for 32 starts last year and, like the defensive front four, are all upperclassmen. Davis is the leader of the group with good all-around production—he leads the secondary with 13 tackles—but all four are solid against the pass.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Eagle defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Boston College’s 2010 opponents excluding Weber State).

2010 Boston College Defensive Efficiency
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency39.56937.975
4th down efficiency10010566.644
Red zone appearances/game2.3213.375
Red zone efficiency1001138354
Red zone TD efficiency28.585081
2010 Boston College Total Defense
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game17.33223.381
Touchdowns/game1.362.685
Plays/game67566297
Yards/game309.735324.291
1st downs/game16.73317.480
Yards/play4.6255.278
2010 Boston College Rushing Defense
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game322234.671
Yards/game71.36123.379
Yards/attempt2.253.487
Fumbles426460
Attempts/fumble25.31234.687
TFL/game7.720896
1st downs/game587.672
Touchdowns/game0.718182
2010 Boston College Passing Defense
StatisticBoston CollegeBoston College RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game359427.470
Completions/game22.710617.364
Yards/game238.384200.976
Yards/attempt6.859856
Yards/completion10.52612.460
Interceptions524461
Attempts/interception212627.881
Sacks/game1.3881.960
Attempts/sack26.310314.473
1st downs/game10.3838.480
Touchdowns/game0.781.372
Completion %64.79763.640
Pass efficiency118.746139.557

Adding It All Up

Like Stanford, the strength of the Eagle offense is the offensive line. The unit isn’t as agile or mobile as the Cardinal front five, but they are strong and physical at the point of attack. Tranquill likes to use the run to set up the pass, but, regardless of who gets the nod at quarterback, Boston College doesn’t have a polished passer like Andrew Luck or Kirk Cousins. The Eagles have been largely one-dimensional, struggling to throw the ball against relatively weak competition, and shouldn’t be able to keep the Irish off-balance with a mix of run and pass.

Defensively, Boston College fields a veteran and experienced squad with two notable exceptions—linebackers Keuchly and Pierre-Louis. The defense makes their opponents work for yardage, generates turnovers, and excels against the run, but they are vulnerable through the air. McGovern rarely commits an extra defender to rushing the passer and the defensive line struggles to pressure the quarterback without help. Like last week, the Irish should expect plenty of seven and eight man drops, but it is unlikely quarterback Dayne Crist will face the same pressure the Cardinal defense was able to apply.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Red zone offense is critical. Spaziani and McGovern’s bend-but-don’t-break style makes it particularly challenging to score touchdowns on a compressed field (7th in 2009 in red zone touchdown efficiency, 8th in 2010). Through their first three games the Eagles have faced 17 red zone plays allowing only one completed pass, an average of 1.7 yards per snap, one first down, and two touchdowns—both runs in goal-to-go situations. This doesn’t bode well for an Irish offense that has struggled inside the 20-yard line (102nd in red zone touchdown efficiency), and improvement in the red zone is requisite to capitalize on scoring opportunities.
  2. Get Vertical. The Irish have only notched 14 big gains through the air, but Boston College is certainly susceptible to downfield throws. Despite a scheme designed to prevent the big play, the Eagle defense has allowed 10 explosive passing gains gain 292 yards (29.2 yards per play) against three teams that struggle throwing the ball. Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones and Kyle Rudolph should be open on vertical routes.
  3. Stop being defined by turnovers and self-inflicted mistakes. If the Irish offense doesn’t eliminate mistakes, protect the ball, and consistently execute, they have no chance in this game. There have been pockets of success and failure, but the latter has mostly been self-inflicted. One of McGovern’s primary goals is to force methodical, consistent execution and the defense has forced plenty of turnovers. To date the Irish haven’t proven capable of playing at a high level for two consecutive drives, let alone 60 minutes.

Defense

  1. Force the issue. The Irish defense faces a true freshman, first-time starter who has never thrown a collegiate pass. This calls for tight coverage, pressure-heavy play-calling, and plenty of hits on the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco must focus on rattling Rettig early and the Irish defensive backs must be prepared to jump routes if he stares down his targets. The strong offensive line and running game should take some pressure off Rettig, but easy, underneath throws will allow the young signal caller to build confidence. Tranquill won’t ask his quarterback to win the game, but the Irish must force him to.
  2. Stop the run on first down. Virginia Tech laid out the blueprint for defending Boston College. The Eagles faced a third down on 15 of 27 play series (55.6 percent), only one of which was a short yardage situation. The other 14 plays needed three or more yards to move the chains (average of 14.7 yards to go), and Boston College converted only three opportunities (21.4 percent). Tranquill is a run-heavy play-caller, but with Rettig under center he is likely to be even more cautious. Thus far Boston College has a 74/26 run/pass split on first down and a similar preference on open downs (71/29), yet they average 4.2 and 4.4 yards per carry in these situations despite the strong play-calling trend. The Irish defense must limit first down running gains and force obvious passing situations.
  3. Win the battle in the trenches. Notre Dame’s defensive front played well against Stanford with two exceptions: holding the edge and pressuring Luck. Boston College employs a similar, physical running game that takes advantage of the strength and experience of the front five, and the Irish must continue the strong play from last week in order to stop the run and rattle Rettig. Defensively, this will be the deciding factor in the game.

Prediction

Offensively, Boston College doesn’t pose a strong threat. The Eagles have the ability to run the ball, but three underwhelming performances against relatively poor competition have highlighted plenty of weaknesses. For Diaco, the game plan is similar to that of last week—play strong on early downs and force obvious passing situations. Rettig isn’t Luck, and the lack of balance should allow the Irish to sell out against the run. The trick this week is better situational defense, i.e. capitalizing on favorable third down situations.

The Eagle defense features three very good linebackers, possibly the best linebacker corps the Irish will face all year, but is  susceptible to big gains through the air and struggle to pressure the passer. Crist has played well—albeit somewhat inconsistently—when given time to throw, and the Irish have the talent to spread the field. Efficiency in the red zone will be critical in this contest and placekicker David Ruffer will likely be used on more than one occasion.

Facing a weak offense but strong defense, this game has the makings of a low scoring affair. The Irish defense should build on their solid play from last week while Crist and company will likely be up-and-down against a defense that preys on inconsistency. Still, the Irish are talented and explosive enough to notch a couple scores, and Ruffer has proven to be a weapon from long range.

Notre Dame 20, Boston College 13

Furthermore

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