THE 80-YARD RUN
It is disconcerting that Notre Dame – with a commanding 19-3 lead – would have a defensive breakdown of the magnitude that allowed Boston College quarterback Jeff Smith, with a previous long run of 37 yards, to burst for an 80-yard score in the fourth quarter to make what should have been a relatively easy victory much closer (19-16) than it needed to be.
Notre Dame is 106th in the country in 50-yard plays from scrimmage allowed . Only 17 FBS teams have allowed more than Notre Dame’s nine.
No. 9 came with Notre Dame holding a comfortable 19-3 lead with 10:35 remaining, following Justin Yoon’s second field goal of the night from 35 yards.
On Boston College’s first play after the Yoon field goal, quarterback Jeff Smith sold the read-option sweep to running back Myles Willis, who would have taken the handoff running laterally right, parallel to the line of scrimmage. Smith did a great job of carrying out what was thought to be a fake at first, and widening out before he truly took off.
Defensive end Romeo Okwara, who had a much quieter game (four tackles, no sacks) after recording sacks in each of the previous five, was sealed wide and out of the play.
Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt, aligned to the left of Jaylon Smith, read a wide right run by Willis, maneuvering his way into outside leverage, which almost undoubtedly would have blown up the play had Willis taken the handoff.
But Jaylon Smith read what Schmidt read, crashing down hard to his left, expecting to join the posse of defenders that must have seen a strong film tendency of this play, only with the handoff instead of the quarterback keeper.
Meanwhile, free safety Max Redfield appeared to be the most gullible of all, failing to react until after Jaylon Smith realized the error of his ways. And yet Redfield caught up with Jeff Smith at the Boston College 43, actually pulling to within a yard-and-a-half of the ball carrier when he decided to keep running to get a better shot.
Redfield had missed his chance. His path to Jeff Smith dipped under the Boston College quarterback. Redfield lost his stride for a moment, and his chase was over. Cornerback Cole Luke was coming off a downfield block from wide receiver Thadd Smith and couldn’t generate enough momentum to turn and get into full stride. Not even Jaylon Smith was going to catch Jeff Smith.
Jaylon Smith said after the game that he did not miss the run-fit on the 80-yard run, although it sure looks as if he should have respected the cavernous hole that was created by the play-action to the right and Okwara getting sealed on the edge. Redfield would be the only other logical possibility for the run fit, and that would have had to have been a decision to “alternate” with Jaylon Smith once Jaylon Smith committed to the wide run right.
Who is responsible for the breakdown is not as important as why the same kind of breakdowns continue at such a rate that Notre Dame is among the worst defenses in the country when it comes to allowing catastrophic plays.
To put a finer point on big plays allowed by the Irish…Only three teams in the country have allowed as many as three plays of 80 yards – Wake Forest (4), Kansas State (3) and Notre Dame (3). The Irish are 114th in 70-yard plays allowed (4) and 93rd in 60 yards plays allowed (5).
THE 86-YARD DRIVE
It’s difficult to determine what is more disconcerting: being among the worst defensive teams in the country in terms of big plays allowed or the shocking number of long scoring drives surrendered by Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has allowed an incredible 20 scoring drives of 75 yards or more, including an even more incredible 19 for touchdowns. That’s an average just shy of two 75-yard touchdown drives per game.
There were four by Virginia, one by Georgia Tech, three by Massachusetts, one by Navy, three by USC, two by Temple, four by Pittsburgh (one a field goal) and two by Boston College, including the 80-yard run.
UMass had an 83-yard run. Navy had a 45-yard run. USC had 75- and 83-yard passes. Pittsburgh had a 51-yard pass. Now add Boston College’s 80-yarder to the list. (Note: Boston College has two plays of more than 50 yards this season.)
With the Irish leading Boston College, 19-9, the defense surrendered a nine-play, 86-yard drive in which the Eagles escaped 2nd-and-19/3rd-and-8 situations, which isn’t exactly their forte with a pair of freshmen playing quarterback.
In the drive, the Irish allowed five first downs (four without the need for a third-down attempt) and a rapid-fire succession of successful plays.
Boston College fans would have to go back to the Howard and Maine games – FCS teams -- to remember this much consistent offensive success in a drive. Consider that the Eagles had consecutive plays of seven yards, 14, six, six, 22, nine, 12, an interference penalty, and then a three-yard touchdown pass. That was nine consecutive successful plays against the Irish defense.
Not once in those nine plays did the Irish slow down, let alone derail, Boston College’s normally inconsistent offense.
Notre Dame’s defense is not fundamentally sound, and that’s a big problem to have. A defense that consistently gets gashed is a defense that is out of position. A defense that regularly gives up big plays is a defense that misses a lot of tackles.
On one hand, there are way too many big plays that go against the Irish. On the other hand, they’ve been among the nation’s leaders in three-and-outs and third-down conversions, which is incredibly incongruous.
You never know when Notre Dame’s defense is going to spring a leak. Success immediately prior to the next play often has no correlation or carryover.
One of the most inexplicable assignments within Brian VanGorder’s defense is the constant pre-snap movement of Joe Schmidt. Schmidt, who Brian Kelly has called the prototypical in-the-box Mike linebacker, often can be seen sprinting to a far-reaching spot in the secondary as the quarterback drops back to pass.
If he’s a prototypical in-the-box Mike linebacker, why is he asked to sprint all over the field?
Presumably, Schmidt is running to an area of weakness within the coverage. Fair enough. But there are two problems with asking Schmidt to do this: 1) he has to expend so much effort getting to the spot that when he gets there, he is not in a football position to make a play, and 2) Schmidt’s movement usually leaves the middle of the field open, which quarterbacks – even the most immobile -- are capable of taking advantage of.
Excluding option quarterbacks Keenan Reynolds (Navy) and Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech), who are going to get their yards running the football, other quarterbacks who had success running against the Irish include:
• Virginia’s Matt Johns (rushing TD);
• Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (93 yards rushing);
• USC’s Cody Kessler (rushing TD);
• Temple’s P.J. Walker (46 net yards rushing);
• Pittsburgh’s Nate Peterman (team high 60 yards rushing, 85 net);
• Wake Forest’s John Wolford (season-high 38 net yards);
• Boston College’s Jeff Smith (career-high 100 yards, including 80-yard TD run, surpassing previous long of 37).
Notre Dame’s defense is a patched up, leaky wall waiting to break loose at any time. While injuries have been significant for the Irish, most of the more significant ones have come on the offensive side of the football.
The addition of cornerback KeiVarae Russell to that injury list could prove to be the most significant in the final game of the regular season. But even with Russell, the Irish were on the verge of a busted assignment every snap.
The only game in which the defense was consistent for four quarters was the Texas game. They’ve allowed at least one touchdown drive of 75 or more yards in eight out of 11 games, including six games of multiple 75-yard drives.
If Notre Dame defeats Stanford and ultimately is left out of the four-team playoff, it likely will be because of the perceived impression of the Irish defense, which is more than just perception. The defense coordinated by Brian VanGorder is a wildly inconsistent defense. It has been since the second game of the season.
CARLISLE, BROWN, HUNTER RESPOND TO CHALLENGE
We wondered who would complement Will Fuller.
No need to wonder anymore. Amir Carlisle, Chris Brown and Torii Hunter, Jr. have responded to the challenge in a pretty big way.
Brown, Carlisle and Hunter have combined for 92 receptions for 1,170 yards. Fuller still scores most of the touchdowns with 12 to Brown’s three, Hunter’s two, and Carlisle’s one. (C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, Josh Adams and Durham Smythe each have receiving touchdowns.)
But they’ve provided balance to the passing attack, which was particularly important the last two games when Fuller was unable to score in back-to-back contests for the first time in the last two seasons.
Carlisle, the soft-spoken, God-fearing running back-turned-slot receiver, has made a significant contribution to the offense in his final season with the Irish, particularly this past weekend in Fenway Park.
Carlisle was at the forefront of Notre Dame’s first-quarter success against Boston College, including a 10-yard swing pass for a touchdown that gave the Irish a double-digit lead (10-0) with four seconds left in the first quarter. (Note: Notre Dame maintained a double-digit lead for more than 33 minutes.)
Carlisle caught a pass for nine yards on Notre Dame’s first snap of the game, added 26-yard grab in Notre Dame’s second possession, which led to a field goal, and scored in the third series.
He seven receptions against the Eagles tied a career-high (he had seven against Michigan in 2014). His 97 receiving yards were five better than his total against Arizona State in ’14. The touchdown was just the fourth receiving score of his career with the Irish and first through the air this season. (He picked up the blocked punt against USC for a touchdown.)
In addition to helping kick-start the offense in the first quarter, Carlisle caught a crucial 3rd-and-1 pass late in third quarter for nine, which led to Brown’s critical score. Carlisle would add a 33-yard grab to start the fourth quarter, which led to Yoon’s second field goal and a 19-3 lead.
Carlisle now sits third on the team in receptions with 27 for 337 yards.
Brown has become a reliable, clutch, consistent college receiver who has shown a knack for rising to the occasion on third down and, in recent weeks, whenever the Irish need a big play.
Brown’s not a guy who gets into the end zone very often. He had two prior to this season and now has three for the ’15 season. Despite his speed, he seldom gets behind secondaries.
But he’s a productive 10-to-25-yard pass receiver. He, as much as any receiver for the Irish, has established himself as an aggressive, willing receiver on third down.
Like Carlisle’s touchdown against Boston College, Brown’s was critical in a game in which the Irish would cross the goal line just twice. Despite tight coverage in the end zone, he reached back and snagged the 12-yard score with 1:10 left in the third quarter to give the Irish a 16-3 lead.
Fuller leads the team with 50 receptions for 1,009 yards and 12 touchdowns. Brown is second with 43 catches for 555 yards and three scores.
Hunter has insinuated himself into the passing game with at least one catch in 10 out of 11 games. He’s fifth on the team in receptions with 22 for a 12.5-yard average and a pair of touchdowns, both of which were important.
He caught the one-yard touchdown pass from DeShone Kizer with seven seconds left at Clemson to pull the Irish to within two. His other touchdown came four games later at Pittsburgh in the second of three Notre Dame scores in the first half en route to a 42-30 victory.
RUNNING GAME STARTS FAST, COOLS QUICKLY
The Irish had great success running opposite the trips formations in the first half as the Irish gashed the weak side of the Boston College defense.
In the opening series, C.J. Prosise scampered 31 yards. In the second series, Prosise gained nine and DeShone ran for eight. Prosise would run for another 20 yards, but was stripped of the football by the ever-present Justin Simmons.
All of these plays went to the opposite side of some form of a trips formation.
Prosise would fumble again. If not for the tremendous effort/hustle by center Nick Martin – who scratched and clawed his way to the football – the Irish would not have scored their first touchdown for a 10-0 lead with four seconds left in the first quarter.
Notre Dame dominated the first quarter, due largely to the weakside running game. The Irish had 152 total yards in the first quarter, which was a 608-yard pace. Seventy-two of those yards on nine carries – an eight-yard average – came on the ground against a defense that came into the game allowing 72.2 yards rushing per game. Meanwhile, Boston College had just 26 yards total offense and trailed by 10.
Notre Dame wasn’t terrible all four quarters, as many have claimed, but they couldn’t sustain what they started.
(One can’t help but wonder about Prosise’s fumbling issues and his lack of contact over the previous two weeks. His recovery from a concussion cleared the proper hurdles, but where was the health of Prosise’s shoulder, which has been on the injury report for the better part of the 2015 season? He hadn’t taken a hit since late in the first quarter against Pittsburgh, and it showed.)
Things slowed down dramatically for the Irish in the running game after the first quarter. After rushing for 72 yards on nine carries, Notre Dame ran it 25 more times for just 55 more.
After Josh Adams’ 12-yard run on Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage of the second half, the Irish did not have a double-digit-yardage run the rest of the night.
Boston College is a physical, tough, downhill defense that aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage and makes you account for their front seven. It was a win for the Irish to have just eight offensive plays that resulted in losses.
Yet it was disappointing that Notre Dame’s offense couldn’t sustain an effective rushing attack over the final three quarters. Although the offense has been more consistent than the defense, the fluctuation of the rushing attack can be pretty significant at times as well.
RED ZONE TURNOVERS
With four touchdowns in as many red-zone trips against Pittsburgh, followed by a two-for-two effort against Wake Forest, Notre Dame’s two touchdowns in seven red-zone appearances against Boston College was another disconcerting aspect of the Shamrock Series game in Fenway Park.
Three of those trips to the red zone resulted in turnovers, which adds to Notre Dame’s nation-leading red-zone turnovers the last two seasons.
Granted, Boston College entered the game with an exceptional 29.4 percent touchdown allowance in the red zone (5-of-17). Notre Dame’s 28.6 percent success rate against the Eagles followed the established numbers.
Questions of DeShone Kizer “hitting the wall” and “leveling off” are legitimate at this stage of the season as opposing teams now have a full body of work to prepare for him and the Irish passing game. You can’t disregard, however, the fact that they’ve gone up against a solid defense (Wake Forest) and an outstanding defense (Boston College) the last two weeks.
Remember, it was just two weeks prior that Kizer threw five touchdown passes and ran for a sixth against Pittsburgh.
Kizer’s decision to throw into the end zone to Aliz’e Jones on 1st-and-goal from the seven was just a brain cramp. First of all, it’s first down, and Kizer knows he has to “live for another day” in that situation. What he thought Jones was going to do with that underthrown duck is inexplicable. It was just a brain cramp mixed with terrible execution that led to the interception.
Notre Dame’s productivity in the red zone could have been worse had Kizer not been ruled down when linebacker Steven Daniels ripped free the football on Notre Dame’s second series, which led to the first of two Justin Yoon field goals.
The Irish weren’t in the red zone yet, but the fumble yanked from C.J. Prosise that center Nick Martin recovered came at the 23-yard line. Three plays later, a 3rd-and-13 pass to Will Fuller was a dangerous throw that was bracketed by linebacker Matt Milano underneath and cornerback John Johnson over the top. The Irish would benefit from a roughing the kicker penalty, which led to Amir Carlisle’s touchdown.
Another critical red-zone turnover came on Josh Adams’ fumble as linebacker Connor Strachan caused it, even though Adams had both arms wrapped around the football. A touchdown in that situation late in the second quarter would have given the Irish a 17-0 lead.
The interception in the red zone in the third quarter with the Irish leading 10-3 should have been interference on defensive tackle Truman Gutapfel in his coverage of Will Fuller. They don’t call pass interference on defensive linemen very often, but when Fuller motioned left and then cut back right for the wide-receiver screen, Gutapfel clearly bumped Fuller off his line, and Justin Simmons made the interception.
It was interesting to see Brian Kelly mouthing the words “field goal” to Kizer after he came off the field. Had the Irish simply kicked a couple more field goals in those seven red-zone appearances, it would have been enough to increase their lead to 13, 16, 19 points along the way instead of allowing the Eagles to creep back into the game.
Instead, it’s back to the drawing board in the red zone.
MATTHIAS FARLEY: THE GLUE
This is now two seasons in a row that Matthias Farley has played a significant role in many of the successes that the Notre Dame defense has had, which is ironic because Irish fans were ready to run him out of town in 2013 after he courageously played virtually an entire season with a shoulder injury that would have sidelined most players.
Farley added to his accolades against Boston College – earning him the game ball – with several heads-up plays.
It was Farley who diagnosed Boston College’s fake punt in the first quarter from the Boston College 37. Farley saw the signs that indicated a fake might be taking place and deftly wrapped up Justin Simmons’ legs before he could get rolling.
In the second quarter, Farley made downing Tyler Newsome’s punt at the six-yard line look easy.
It also was Farley who allowed snapper Scott Daly an opportunity to eventually fall on the muffed punt inside the Boston College 10-yard line by crashing into the pile of bodies and keeping the football alive.
And then it was Farley who recovered the game-ending onside kick as several of the Irish players were caught a bit off guard by the timing of the kick.
Now KeiVarae Russell is out and the Irish need a cornerback to start against Stanford. No, that’s not Farley. He needs to be on the field as much as possible, but not at cornerback. If you put him at cornerback – a position he doesn’t play well – you weaken yourself at two spots.
The cornerback opposite Cole Luke will have to come from Devin Butler, Nick Coleman or Nick Watkins, none of which are great options at this stage of the season, although Butler’s experience likely will get him the starting nod.
How about Torii Hunter? The Irish need their offense functioning on all cylinders. The choice to replace Russell has to come from the players with more practice reps/cornerback muscle memory.
THE UNCONTROLLABLE HEAD COACH
Notre Dame has faced a string of coaches who range from wound tight (Temple’s Matt Rhule) to persistent complainer (Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi) to combustible (Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson) to uncontrollable (Boston College’s Steve Addazio).
The string ends with Stanford head coach David Shaw, who will calmly coach the Cardinal Saturday night against the Irish.
Is this a trend in college football?
Fans in general do not realize how much verbal abuse referees are taking today. There is more that’s exchanged between head coach and officials than people are aware of. Coaches – at least these and obviously several others that we don’t get a chance to see on a regular basis – are letting their verbal tirades fly without much regard for the repercussions.
Forty years ago, coaches who chewed officials incessantly would be flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That rarely happens today, which tells you just how far Addazio must have gone to draw a penalty at the end of the third quarter.
Addazio is a particularly unique case because when calls go against the Eagles – it really doesn’t matter whether the official is correct or not; it only takes a crucial call to go against BC – he turns it into a personal attack, as the most obscene of verbal expressions caught on camera Saturday night following an interference penalty on Boston College early in the game showed.
Addazio takes the field in perpetual anger, exasperation and frustration. He is on the verge of an eruption at all times. When the call goes against him, the fuse is lit. Since Boston College is such a young and mistake-prone football team, he’s generally in a tizzy from start to finish.
What prompted the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, it appeared, was the correct call by the officials. The Eagles were whistled for an illegal formation with five men off the line of scrimmage. Seven, not six, are required on the line of scrimmage. Boston College had two players split to the right, one that was a yard-and-a-half off the line of scrimmage and the other three yards off the line of scrimmage.
Quarterback Jeff Smith was in the shotgun with a running back to his right and a tight end lined up three yards behind the line of scrimmage in a tight slot. That’s six guys on the line and five off the line. An easy call.
But that’s when Addazio started chirping. It escalated. Finally, the official didn’t just throw the flag; he launched it high and right in front of Addazio, who has pushed the envelope with officials all season long. Addazio is notorious for his over-the-top, vulgar, personal attacks on the men officiating the game.
Addazio made an interesting albeit inaccurate statement after the game.
“I’m not happy about that penalty,” Addazio said. “All I’m trying to do, to be honest with you, is I’m out there competing for my team. I make no excuses about (the penalty). I shouldn’t be getting penalties.
“But I’m just telling you that my mindset is I’m fighting for my team. I’m fighting for my team every play. Everything that happens in that football game, I’m going to fight for my football team. I want them to know that I’m fighting for them, okay? It is what it is. At the end of the day, I’m always going to be responsible for that, so that’s my fault, it’s on me.”
If Addazio were a “players’ coach,” his statement above would adequately explain his behavior. But Addazio is the antithesis of a players’ coach. He is as verbally abusive of his players as he is of the officials.
Addazio is not “fighting for his players”; he’s fighting for a victory for himself. He is over-the-top obsessed with winning to the point where he has no on-off button with his emotions. His players are pawns in his quest for victory. To turn his uncontrollable rage into a masked defense of his players sounds good and gives him an out. But it’s not reality. Reality is that Addazio is a powder keg that turns every call that goes against him into an outraged personal attack.
Eventually, if/when Boston College can’t continue on the path established by Addazio in 2013-14 – a combined 14 victories and a pair of bowl games – the athletic administration as well as the players will grow weary of Addazio’s over-the-top coaching style. He has a young team, so a .500 record or so probably isn’t far off.
His outrageous treatment of the officials will continue.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
Colton Lichtenburg, who booted the opening kickoff well out of bounds to start the game, was the same guy who nailed a 43-yard field goal early in the third quarter. Astonishing. He missed from 31 and 26 yards against Wake Forest in a 3-0 loss…Notre Dame was whistled for an illegal formation on the second play of the game. How does that happen?…Not one to comment on Notre Dame’s uniforms in the Shamrock Series because it’s a matter of taste, not right or wrong. But the combination of blue with green just doesn’t fit, does it? It’s got to be one color or the other. Thumbs down on these uniforms…C.J. Sanders had a game reminiscent of an early-season performance, including a delay of game penalty for returning a punt after a fair-catch signal, which means Sanders was not aware that he could not return a punt that bounces after waving for a fair catch. This is a rule that your punt returner should be aware of, especially by the 11th game of the season…Boston College nose tackle Connor Wujciak is the son of former Notre Dame offensive lineman Al Wujciak. Al was a solid player; his son is a really, really good interior defensive lineman…
Was wondering who Doug Flutie was talking about when he said that his nephew frequently complained about Sherman Alston’s penchant for fumbling punts. Was it Troy, the quarterback currently on the team? Doug Flutie covered his tracks later in the broadcast by saying it was his “other nephews” barking about Alston’s miscues…Cole Luke had a better sophomore season than junior season. He was very fortunate that Thadd Smith dropped a deep ball late in the second quarter…The opening kickoff of the second half tells you Notre Dame’s unfocused level of competitiveness in this game. Missed tackles by Tyler Newsome and Nicco Fertitta led to a 67-yard return…Speaking of a lack of concentration, DeShone Kizer had one of his most inconsistent performances of the season, including his failure to deftly handle a extra-point snap by Scott Daly, which was a bit inside, but should have been handled…Nice grab, Nic Weishar, on Kizer’s impromptu two-point conversion throw. It was short of the end zone, but still a nice grab. Can’t Weishar be a weapon in the passing game on the goal line? Ever? Just once? The Stanford game would be a good time to unveil it…It’s the 12th game of the season. The playoff is on the line. Will Fuller needs to return punts. His hands can be iffy on passes, but not punts. Too much at stake to put a freshman on the field whose confidence is shaken.