Prediction #6 – Notre Dame's lowest scoring game will take place in Chestnut Hill
"If you look at our schedule (at Cincinnati) carefully, and really go through it, you'll see that we won one game 28-7; that we won another 21-14. So you'll see some low-scoring games in there and some of it was tactical, in how we played offense, to get the win that day." – Brian Kelly, December 2009
Kelly's comment was in response to Notre Dame's recent defensive struggles, and why he – a perceived offensive-minded coach – would be able to stem the tide.
He expounded on his 12-0 season of 2009, offering a brief glimpse of how he approaches each opponent:
"When you have what we had at Cincinnati, a prolific offense and one that could score on anybody, you don't put your defense in a good position when you play that way. But having said that, it wasn't about our defense, it was about winning."
Kelly's comments blend well with my reasoning for the Eagles/Irish matchup as the *defensive slugfest of the 2010 season. The breakdown below is three-fold but admittedly, it's the series' recent history and bad blood that proved the determining factor.
(*Since every prediction must be proven true or false, we'll use total points scored by the winning team as the barometer).
The sound defenseLast year's 20-16 final score (the 2nd lowest point output of the season behind the 35-0 shellacking of Nevada in the opener) was largely an instrument of BC's sound, patient, Cover 2 scheme.
They challenged the Irish to beat them with short, non-threatening passes outside. The Irish obliged, as Clausen patiently hit Duval Kamara and Golden Tate for 18 combined receptions, the bulk of them underneath the coverage and outside the hash marks before Tate finally broke free on the pair's final grab, taking it 36 yards down the sideline for what proved to be the game-winning score.
The Eagles return the nation's 19th ranked scoring defense, due largely to a unit that finished 14th vs. the run in '09. More important, battle-tested personnel returns to Chestnut Hill led by freshman phenom Luke Kuechly at outside linebacker (Kuechly might have played the best individual game by an Irish opponent last season).
The expected return of 2008 All-America linebacker Mark Herzlich following a year on the sidelines due to treatment in his leg for Ewing's Sarcoma (Herzlich estimated his leg was "80-85 percent" in early June) would provide an additional boost, especially by the time these teams meet on October 2.
Junior defensive end Alex Albright (7 tackles/1 TFL vs. the Irish last season) is next in a long line of over-achieving Eagles up front. Returning free safety Wes Davis (5 tackles and a pass breakup vs. the Irish in '09) and cornerbacks Donnie Fletcher (9 tackles) and DeLeon Gause (8 tackles) lead the secondary.
In 2009, three of Kelly's Bearcats' four lowest-scoring contests were played away from home. In 2010, Notre Dame's offense is unlikely to reach the level of execution displayed last season by Kelly's Bearcats, which brings us to the impetus for this prediction:
"You have to find a way to play good enough defense, in the times that you need it…I think as a head coach who's a play-caller; I have a lot to do with how those games shape up."
The quote is telling, and I believe Kelly will approach the team's second road contest under his command as one that must be won in the fourth quarter. The Irish won't begin the game conservatively, but the tenor of the contest will force both coaches to value the football.
Solid, disciplined but unspectacular, the Eagles make opponents work for their points. Look for both two teams to trade significant hits – and punts, for the middle quarters of the contest.
The one-dimensional offenseNotre Dame snapped BC's ugly six-game streak vs. the program due largely to an uncharacteristic 5-turnover effort by the Eagles, notably 26-year-old freshman signal caller Dave Shinskie, who offset his career-best yardage total of 279 yards with three costly interceptions.
The Irish flipped the script on BC last October, for once playing smarter, more conservative football while taking away the Eagles calling card: its power running attack. (BC ran for 293 yards at NC State one week before the Irish held the Eagles to just 70 yards on 29 carries).
Sophomore workhorse Montel Harris fumbled twice and managed just 38 yards on 22 carries vs. an Irish defense that would yield more than 1,150 rushing yards in its next five outings.
Shinskie is a year older (that wasn't the problem) and likely a year wiser, but was nonetheless challenged by a youth movement at the position in the spring by a classmate seven years his junior, Mike Marscovetra.
Regardless of who mans the position vs. the Irish, the Eagles will be without wide receiver Rich Gunnell in the 2010 tussle. That might not mean much to the rest of college football, but Gunnell was the previously non-descript receiver who single-handedly torched the Irish secondary last season, catching 10 passes (8 from the slot) for 179 yards and a touchdown. Gunnell repeatedly kept the Eagles in the contest, as nine of his receptions resulted in a first down (or touchdown) including four on 3rd or 4th down.
The Eagles have no suitable replacement for Gunnell's experience and crafty ability to work over a secondary. Junior Colin Larmond (3 receptions/61 yards vs. the Irish; 29 receptions on the season) ranks as the team's top outside target for 2010.
The dreaded intangiblesIf you've followed the series you know there's another breakout performance on the horizon. Names become of the household variety thanks to a player's exploits in this series: from Mike Mamula to Josh Ott to (nearly) Rich Gunnell and Luke Kuechly. From Robert Farmer to Deke Cooper to Kyle McCarthy. The matchup brings out the best in a few (generally from the Bostonians) and the worst in others (with the exception of last season, generally the Irish head coach).
In 2009, the game alternately changed on goal line hits by Notre Dame's Sergio Brown (forced fumble) and BC's Marcellus Bowman (4th down knockout blow). Luke Kuechly and Kyle McCarthy traded heroics with big defensive plays before Brian Smith sealed the Eagles' fate with a game-ending interception.
Heading into 2010, I can't shake the feeling that the game's hero will once again reside on the defense. The outcome will be decided by the team that offers timely execution while outhitting, out-hustling, and as an end result, ultimately outscoring the other…just don't expect an offensive show for either side.
As Kelly mentioned in December's initial interview: "You're living on borrowed time if you're trying to go around outscoring everybody."
Especially the Boston College Eagles.