Four Downs: Notre Dame

Four Downs: Notre Dame

Boston College’s loss to Notre Dame on Saturday crystallized next week more clearly than any other game on the schedule. It dropped the Eagles to 5-6 on the season, which meant next week against Pittsburgh came into full view. Bowl eligibility and everything that goes with it – extra practices, further development and a trip to represent the uniform, the team, and the university – would now rest on a single game, the last game of the 2019 season.

“We have another game,” head coach Steve Addazio said. “It’s the last game of the year. We have to go play it and win it. We have to get bowl eligible. We talked about it last week with a 10-day run (to determine a bowl game). No matter what happened (at Notre Dame), it’s a 10-day run. We’re still in that run. We’re still fighting to go get that bowl game. We want to continue developing our team and developing our guys. We want to play at a high level against Pittsburgh.”

Every team starts its season with training camp drills in August. They all harbor postseason hopes in some form, and there’s an expectation of week-to-week success. There’s hours of mental and physical study and preparation before a three-hour roller coaster on Saturday. 

It turns a bowl game into an ultimate reward. Simply getting to a game takes months of sacrifice and preparation, creating and fostering relationships and bonds nobody can ever understand. It’s why simply getting to a game is important. It’s one more game for the players to suit up for each other and play one more game. It’s about the team and giving younger players extra practice time. It’s simply about competing for everyone in a program that has to earn it.

“We have to move on and prepare for Pitt,” defensive lineman Tanner Karafa said. “Our backs are against the wall to extend the season. It’s do or die. That’s all I’m thinking about. I want to move on and beat Pittsburgh.”

August has no way of predicting November because of the remaining unknowns. Heading into the last week, everything is now clear for the Eagles: put Saturday to bed. Let everything be in the past. It’s a one-game season, one more opportunity to extend and get to a bowl game. 

That said, here’s what came out of Saturday’s game at Notre Dame.

First Down: Execution by Execution

The stinging defeat in South Bend rang particularly bitter for a number of reasons. BC tortured Notre Dame in the first half and took a 7-6 lead in the second quarter behind an 84-yard drive over nearly seven minutes. The Irish responded with a 15-play drive of their own to retake the lead, but it gave the Eagles one more shot before halftime with ample time on the clock.

Nervous energy hummed underneath Notre Dame Stadium at that point, and the anxiety bubbled when Dennis Grosel sprinted for a 24-yard first down at midfield. But then Adetokunbo Ogundeji recorded a sack, forcing BC to punt. It quickly turned into a 56-yard drive stamped by a field goal.

“We got the ball over midfield, and then we took a bad sack that didn’t need to be taken,” Addazio said. “That gave them an opportunity to go down after a penalty to get a field goal. With 2:38 left, getting over midfield, I felt good about getting points. That was the first sign of really poor execution.”

It was a loose thread, but it became a harbinger for an unraveling in the second half. The defense held the line against consecutive three-and-outs, but BC wound up on a shaky cliff when Notre Dame kicked another field goal. Down 12, the next possession became all the more important, but a fumble hand-delivered a short field that resulted in a Notre Dame score. One more touchdown later, what was once a 13-7 game became 33-7, essentially ending the day in the span of one quarter.

“We didn’t execute at a high level,” Addazio said. “We had miscues and drops. You can’t do that, and we did that. That led to rapid-fire scores in the third period. I thought our defense played well, and we put them in a couple of tight binds. It was (just) an ability to execute (on offense).”

Second Quarter: Tough sledding

The final numbers told a stark story about the offense’s uncharacteristic inability to get anything going. Neither AJ Dillon nor David Bailey got any traction in the running game, and the Notre Dame defense got full pressure against quarterback Dennis Grosel. Grosel took four sacks behind an offensive line averaging less than one per game, and he finished with 9-of-20 passing one game after he enjoyed success against Florida State.

“It wasn’t an energy letdown, it was an execution letdown,” Addazio said. “We didn’t execute well in the third quarter. We made too many mistakes. There were some missed throws, missed reads, dropped balls and a couple of turnovers. You can’t do that.”

Full credit goes to Notre Dame in that regard. The Eagle attack played right into the Notre Dame strengths, and it took BC out of its game in the second half. Grosel hit one long pass to Kobay White, but he only went 3-of-8 in the third quarter. Three of those attempts targeted tight ends but fell incomplete, and another attempt to get Dillon involved instead ended with a QB hurry.

“We just never really got going in the third quarter on either side of the ball, especially on offense,” Addazio said. “More credit to (Notre Dame). I thought they played very, very well in the third period, and we didn’t. It got away from us right there.”


Halftime Hits

-NBC produced a wonderful segment for its halftime about the 35th anniversary of Doug Flutie’s pass against Miami. It was really interesting to hear some of the early stories because I often miss some of that in larger documentaries for some reason. I particularly found interest in the story about Natick’s loss to Framingham on Thanksgiving because it’s such a lopsided rivalry.

-It also got me thinking about Thanksgiving football in Massachusetts because this week signals the renewal of a number of early morning kickoffs. The high school playoff format means a number of these teams played earlier in the season, but it does nothing to me to diminish the early coffee and donuts at a high school. Maybe it’s because my high school hasn’t had a regular opponent, but the history of town-based rivalries is always worth mentioning. Gravy tastes better when it’s served over a victory in those games.

-That’s also why defeat feels so raw, and it’s why losing to Notre Dame, regardless of the final score or situation, will always sting. It was palpable from watching players speak after the game, but there’s still one more left to play.

Third Down: Close the Book.

Ian Book is the perfect quarterback for the Notre Dame offense. He didn’t necessarily raise eyebrows with any one particular play, but he simply executed and kept plays going with his legs. That word – execution – became the difference-maker, even as the BC defense played arguably its best game of the season.

“I thought Book had too many plays outside of the pocket and lost containment,” Steve Addazio said. “We lost containment too many times. I was worried about that, and we missed some tackles. I wished we could’ve tightened that up.”

Book finished with strong numbers after going 26-of-40 for 239 yards and three touchdowns while gaining 66 more yards on the ground. He spread the ball to three different receivers, hitting Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and Cole Kmet for seven catches and one touchdown apiece. He simply kept the machine moving, even though BC’s defense bent in the midfield and held the Irish out of the end zone for the majority of the first half.

“I thought we did a good job in the back end,” Addazio said. “But I thought that the quarterback hurt us a little bit by staying alive with his legs. (He was) either getting a first down or really buying a lot of time and breaking us up in the secondary by making a play down the field. I thought that he’s fast. He’s a pretty athletic guy. I thought we could have kept him in (the pocket) and tackled him better.”

Fourth Down: Bowl Race Update

Every week seems to make the ACC bowl race hazier; this week did it again. Georgia Tech upset NC State on Thursday night and rendered the Wolfpack ineligible for a bowl with their seventh loss. It also dropped them into a tie with Syracuse in the Atlantic Division, locking two nine-wins teams that finished second and third last year into the bottom of the division. 

Last year’s last-place team, Louisville, beat the Orange on Saturday, clinching a second-place finish behind Clemson. That means Wake Forest, which was ranked in the Top 20 as recently as the start of November, is pushed back into a Tier One bowl game.

Virginia Tech beat Pittsburgh for its sixth win in seven games, meaning the Hokies’ game against Virginia now determines the Coastal Division championship. The winner of that game advances to play Clemson in the ACC Championship. That could make for a mess with the Orange Bowl. The easy statement is that Coastal Division champion locks into the game because a win over Clemson earns an automatic bid, while a loss likely sends the Tigers to the CFP, necessitating the next-highest ACC team into the game. It’s never that easy though.

The rest of the bowl structure threw into complete chaos when Miami lost to Florida International. Because of the opponents and rules around certain games, the middle tier is completely jumbled. Five teams could finish with a 4-4 conference record, and five teams could finish a 5-3 conference record. The majority of those teams are hovering around four or five losses, with the possibility of some 6-6 teams still getting into the mix. 

Point After: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Coastal Division reign came to a stinging end in Blacksburg on Saturday with a 28-0 loss to Virginia Tech.

The Panthers never got anything going against the No. 25 Hokies, and Kenny Pickett only went 10-of-26 for 103 yards. Pitt only pushed forward for 60 yards on the ground, and the Lunch Pail Defense ended Bud Foster’s tenure at Lane Stadium with one of its best performances of the season. Hendon Hooker took care of the rest with two touchdown passes.

It means Saturday’s game has critical value in the bowl race for both teams. Pitt is locked into bowl eligibility, but the final game of the season carries special significance for a team vying for an eighth victory. The team still has an outside shot at the Camping World Bowl, and a win over BC would lock it into finishing no worse than Tier One.

BC, meanwhile, is playing for its bowl life, needing this game to become bowl eligible.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the players,” Addazio said. “It’s about the team and the program. It’s about growing and developing and driving. We’re going to give everything. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s a big game ahead of us. We have to come out 100 miles per hour. We can’t ride on all the roller coasters. You keep going, stay the course and keep going. Let’s go focus and go get our sixth win at Pittsburgh; we want to play four quarters of good football.”

It was announced on Sunday that the game will be televised on the ACC Network. Game time is slated for 3:30 p.m.

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