A celebration penalty after Smith's score, coupled with a good return, allowed the Eagles quarterback to direct the decisive drive of the contest, capped with a 13-yard touchdown toss to Kevin Challenger to propel No. 4 Boston College to a 27-14 victory over the Irish. In front of another sellout at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Irish gave the fans a lot to cheer for in the final 25 minutes of the contest. But another slow start was too much too overcome as Notre Dame dropped to 1-6 on the season and the Eagles have now won five straight games in the series.
How bad has it been in the first half for the Irish? Notre Dame has been outscored 120-24 in the first 30 minutes of action in 2007. The Irish were down 20-0 after Ryan hit Andre Callender with a 9-yard scoring strike in the third quarter. Head coach Charlie Weis has tried almost everything to get his team to start faster out of the gates. Despite quarterback Evan Sharpley's gallant comeback attempt in the second half, Notre Dame was behind the eight ball early again and it cost them for their sixth loss of the year.
"I think that we had a chance in this game," Weis said. "We had a chance in this game. But you know what, the bottom line is they won 27-14, and if I sit there and say, ‘God, if we just would have been better on that snap or if we would have hit this one pass or we didn't get a penalty,‘ all those things count. All those plays count the same.
"So rather than sitting here and making excuses, which is never my deal, I think that I have to figure out a way of getting it done better, not celebrate, not throw the interception, get a better snap in that situation, tie those things together because we are not the type of team at this point that's just going to go up and down the field against somebody. So we have to play a more error-free game."
After the Eagles went up 20-0, there was some grumbling about another blowout defeat. Boston College had been dominating the contest in every facet and Notre Dame was quite lucky to be down just 20 points. At that point in the game, Weis decided to insert Sharpley at the quarterback for Jimmy Clausen.
The freshman signal caller, under constant pressure for most of the day, was not getting the job done. Clausen finished 7-of-20 for 60 yards and two interceptions. The last pickoff by Tyronne Pruitt was returned to the Notre Dame 11-yard line and set up the touchdown reception by Callender, the running back's third of the contest. Weis said a combination of Clausen's ineffectiveness and being banged up made the move to Sharpley an easy one.
"The question is is the ineffectiveness caused by being banged up," Weis pondered. "Part of the ineffectiveness, you could see he just wasn't -- I'm not making excuses, I'm just saying I didn't see him fresh. At that point I felt going with a fresh Evan was just the way to go."
It didn't take long for Sharpley to ignite the struggling offensive attack. The junior quarterback led the Irish down the field 79 yards in seven plays, capped when Sharpley found Robby Parris on a post route over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown. It cut the deficit to 20-7. The 79 yards matched the total output for the Notre Dame offense up to that point.
The next series is when Notre Dame got back into the game. On a 3rd-and-7, Ryan dropped back and was under pressure. The Boston College quarterback threw a pass into the crowded middle of the field. Waiting for the ball was Smith. The freshman outside linebacker grabbed the interception and ran past the Eagles offense for a 25-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 20-14. It was the first interception return for a score by a Notre Dame freshman in 31 years. Another big play occurred when Smith crossed the end zone.
After the freshman scored, Smith was mobbed by his teammates. The celebration was so excessive that the referees flagged Notre Dame for a 15-yard penalty. That forced the Irish to kick off from the 15-yard line instead of the 30. Boston College returned a pooch kickoff to the Irish 44. Five plays later, Ryan turned the good field position into gold when he found Challenger for the backbreaking touchdown.
"I'll blame me for that because the bottom line is I'm responsible for the discipline of our football team," Weis said. "Sure, we could sit there and say about these guys going out there and being fired up, but the bottom line is it's my team and we got that penalty and now we kick off and they get the ball in plus territory."
Notre Dame tried over and over again to make it a one-score game. The best chance occurred with just under six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. After a fourth down conversion to Robby Parris earlier in the drive and a scrambling effort to find John Carlson for nine yards to set up 4th-and-1 at the Boston College 13, the Irish converted. Sharpley hit Parris on a play action fake touchdown pass to make it 27-20 for the moment. But a holding penalty on Michael Turkovich negated the touchdown and a chance for Notre Dame to make a final stand. Sharpley's next pass was incomplete, as was the chance for the comeback.
"I went from feeling pretty good about myself and about the call and feeling pretty good about our chances to seeing the flag," Weis said. "And without seeing the call, hey, I can watch the officials all I want but that still puts us 27-21 and we still end up losing. I would have liked to see what would happen, but I didn't see the call enough to sit there and say anything about it."
Sharpley's final numbers were 11-of-29 for 135 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. The junior quarterback was sacked twice, the only two of the game. Clearly, the team moved the ball better when Sharpley was in the contest. After the game, Weis declined to make any quick judgment on who would start next weekend's game against Southern California. Whoever starts has a tough challenge to improve the offensive numbers. Notre Dame rushed for 27 yards on 21 attempts and scored just one touchdown.
"I think that we were a little bit hot and cold," Weis said of his offense. "We made a few plays out there, made a few in the first half, a couple big ones. The bottom line is we have no touchdowns, no points. I thought Jimmy was banged up pretty good and didn't have great zip. I told him I'd give him the first drive of the second half to see what he had, and he came up and threw that early pick, and I just felt at that time a fresh Evan was the way to go. He gave us a spark and came out and made some plays, especially in that first drive, and he made some nice throws in the second half, but the bottom line is I think we're hot and cold."
Boston College did not waste anytime getting on the scoreboard. On the Eagles first possession, BC went 73 yards in five plays and got into the end zone when Callender scored the first of his three touchdowns on the afternoon from seven yards out. In the second quarter, the Eagles got a break when Notre Dame punter Geoff Price's knee was ruled down after a poor snap from J.J. Jansen. Ryan moved the team 41 yards in eight plays, capped when Callender barreled across the goal line from a yard out to make it 13-0.
In the first half, it was all Boston College. The Eagles outgained Notre Dame 263-79 in the first 30 minutes of action. Ryan was 18-of-26 for 169 yards in the first half and finished 32-of-49 for 291 yards. The Heisman Trophy candidate wasn't spectacular but was efficient in methodically moving the Boston College team down the field.