Here We Go Again

Irish Eyes offers Prediction #6 in its summer series: The season's lowest-scoring contest...

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 defense

Last 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 offense

Notre 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.

Process of Elimination

Each opponent was reviewed as a potential candidate for lowest-scoring contest, but the Eagles' defensive toughness, lack of offensive punch, and overall coaching acumen proved deciding factors:

  • Purdue: Sloppy play leading to defensive/special teams scores are prevalent in season openers, and I don't expect this game to be played close to the vest.
  • Michigan: Well, maybe 11 of the 12 opponents were considered. There will be points aplenty in this rivalry game. Look for Michigan's front seven to be beaten down a bit from a physical battle vs. Connecticut in the season-opener one week prior.
  • Michigan State: My initial choice for the prediction as the team's first road test will be daunting, but a low-scoring contest plays into the hands of the Spartans. Look for Kelly to open it up the offense as much as possible in a hostile environment, leading to scoring opportunities (and short fields) for two teams with plenty of offensive weapons. Simply put: Michigan State has too much talent at the skill positions for this game to be played in the high teens.
  • Stanford: No Gerhart. No Clausen or Tate…but I have a hard time believing the teams that piled up 943 yards and 83 points last November will struggle to the lowest output of the Irish season. The Notre Dame offense should have some of its kinks worked out by Game Four, as well.
  • Pittsburgh: The Panthers defense throttled the Irish up front last November. That same unit held Kelly's offense to 38 points and an additional special teams score three weeks later in a 45-44 slop-fest in favor of the undefeated Bearcats. The presence of Panthers wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and the running back tandem of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham could make for some offensive fireworks in South Bend in October, and remember, Kyle Rudolph missed this contest last season and Michael Floyd was about 80 percent of his former self, two weeks back in action from a broken collarbone.

    And just a hunch: Game Five seems about the time Kelly's offense could begin to click on all cylinders.

  • Western Michigan: The real possibility that this will be Notre Dame's best defensive game of the season made for an attractive alternate choice as the season's lowest-scoring game…but expect the Irish to score early and often vs. the rebuilding Broncos.
  • Navy: They shorten the game with a patient, precision triple-option attack. They sit back in a Cover 2 defense and look to make plays in the red zone, defensively. It worked like a charm last season vs. Notre Dame, but the recent history of this series has consistently seen ridiculous yardage totals and at times, plenty of points scored. Look for the Irish to rack up 30+ next November…which should be enough to keep a four-decade road/neutral site winning streak vs. the Midshipmen intact.
  • Tulsa: Total points scored in Tulsa's final four contests last season: 293…
  • Utah: I can't get a handle on this game in the summer, but the Utes can score enough to remain non-applicable to the prediction. Utah does return the nation's 9th ranked pass efficiency defense, but lost four defensive starters to the NFL Draft and three starters from its secondary. Regardless, I don't foresee a conservative game plan in any Irish home game this season.
  • Army: The logical choice, and Army has the defense (No. 16 nationally last season) to hang in there, but the Cadets would have to play turnover-free football for the Irish not to pull away, an eventuality that opens up the contest to ample 4th Quarter scoring by both sides.
  • USC: The Trojans have scored 30+ in eight consecutive vs. the Irish. The winning team in the series has scored 25 or more in 11 straight. The only way this contest is low-scoring is if two 9-2 squads face off and play tight/choke (with plenty of turnovers) due to the possibility of a BCS bowl berth on the line.

The dreaded intangibles

If 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.

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