The Bruins' pounded the football 37 times at the Rose Bowl, but gained just 89 yards (2.4 avg.), in the 20-6 Notre Dame victory. Running back Kahlil Bell ran for 64 yards on 18 carries, his long was only nine yards, and he became the first runner not to gain at least 100 yards against the Irish this season.
Notre Dame's defense played stout against a rushing attack that came into the game ranked 29th nationally at 199 yards rushing per game. They forced five fumbles and recovered three of them. Part of the reason for the success was that Tom Zbikowski and Trevor Laws hit starting quarterback Ben Olson, and knocked him out of the game late in the first quarter. The Bruins had to turn to red-shirt freshman McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who had never attempted a college pass the rest of the way. But even when the Irish knew their first five opponents were going to run the ball they struggled to stop it. So Saturday was a huge stepping stone.
"I think we all came out and we were very energetic, very enthusiastic and we were flying around," junior nose tackle Pat Kuntz said. He led the Irish with eight tackles. "That's one of the best ways to stop the run is everyone doing their job and flying around making tackles."
"It seems like things are clicking," senior defensive end Trevor Laws said. He had five stops against the Bruins, and is one tackle behind Maurice Crum Jr. for the team lead with 46. "People are playing really well. People are fitting their fits, people are getting after the ball, we got a lot of turnovers, people are flying around, that helped. We knocked out their starting quarterback so we kind of knew changing their whole attack really they'd be a little more one dimensional."
Saturday's opponent, No. 4 Boston College (6-0) won't be as one dimensional. With Heisman candidate Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Eagles offense ranks 21st nationally at 454.83 yards per game. In averaging 35.83 points per game, Boston College gets 314.17 of its yards through the air (11th nationally), and 140.67 yards of it on the ground (70th nationally).
"We just want to make sure that we can carry everything over pretty much to this next game," Laws said. The Irish allowed just 282 total yards against UCLA, by far a season best. "The confidence, the overall play, just everything, we want to bring it forward."
***While Boston College will try and establish the run on Saturday, expect Ryan to air the football out on a regular basis. He comes into the game with 1,857 yards passing (third in the nation) and 15 touchdowns. He has thrown for over 400 yards twice this season, and offensive coordinator Steve Logan loves to throw the football.
Logan worked under Irish defensive backs coach Bill Lewis during the 1989-91 seasons at East Carolina, where the two helped turn around a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1983. In Lewis's final year, the Pirates went 11-1 and finished ranked No. 9 in the country after earning the team's first bowl win in 13 years. Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was also on that staff as a offensive line/tight ends coach.
Lewis has told his secondary that if Jagodzinski let Logan throw the ball on every play, he would.
"We're going to come in prepared for them to throw the ball against us," sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls said. "That gives us a better chance to show what we really are about and gives us a chance to get more picks."
Notre Dame's pass defense ranks fourth nationally, allowing just 153.67 yards per game through the air, but they've still yet to be tested like Ryan and company will on Saturday. Walls gave Ryan one of the highest compliments an opposing player could get.
"We've kind of compared him to a Brady Quinn kind of," Walls said. "We went against Brady in practice last year and he kind of reminds us of another Brady, so it's going to be a tough challenge."
***You'd figure that the player leading the team in pass breakups would be a cornerback or safety. At Notre Dame, Kuntz and Laws are fighting for the team lead. Kuntz has knocked down six passes, and Laws has got his hands on four.
"I think I'm winning right now even though Trevor stole one from me," Kuntz joked. "I should have seven, Trevor stole one from me. But it's not that big of a competition. We always have fun getting after it."
"I think we had our hands last week on seven balls in a game," head coach Charlie Weis said. "I think that not all of them were defensive linemen, but I think we had seven pass breakups in the game that we recorded. Not what the official stats are, but I think that those two guys, and there's been some times where you wondered how did they know to get their hand up at that point, but there's several times where the easiest way to cover them is one of these defensive linemen knock that ball down and the ball never even get there. So I think they've both done a very nice job on that aspect right there."
***A couple weeks into the season, Irish coaches told outside linebacker Anthony Vernaglia to learn the linebacker's responsibilities in the nickel package. Against UCLA, the 6-foot-3, 234-pound senior found himself lining up inside on a few plays against the Bruins.
"Before, earlier this summer, we experimented some with him being just an outside linebacker even though in the spring he was more of an inside linebacker," Weis said. Vernaglia has 13 tackles this season. "So we knew we had some position flexibility in him. Now because he's in the two deep at both inside and outside, it puts him in a position where he can get on the field in both spots. There aren't that many guys that are a capable of playing inside and out, but he happens to be big enough to play outside, but athletic enough to be a cover guy on the inside."
Vernaglia, who has changed positions from safety to linebacker, was excited about the possibilities.
"Nickel is where you get to make plays," he said. "You can do some things at outside linebacker against regular, but most of the time you're playing against the run. But nickel is when you get a chance to shine. Sacks, pass breakups picks, that's where all the fun stuff comes into play."
Another linebacker that has the flexibility to play inside and outside is junior Scott Smith. However, his services haven't really been called upon with the Irish staying healthy. Smith has recorded seven tackles this year.
"He's still practices both roles," Weis said. "Just Anthony would probably be a little bit ahead of him as far as experience and playmaking."