Boston College Football Four Downs: Notre Dame

Boston College Football Four Downs: Notre Dame

The hype machine made it easy to churn out storylines for Saturday’s Holy War game between Boston College and No. 2 Notre Dame. The matchup echoed shades of 1993 when the Eagles upset the Fighting Irish one week after they beat the No. 1 team in the nation. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec played against his former team for the first time since transferring this past offseason. The additional backdrop of the Red Bandanna Game tied everything together with an overarching mission and message of service above self.

It pressed an upset bid to college football’s forefront and ignored the relative power of the second-ranked Fighting Irish, to which Notre Dame reminded everyone how good it is with a 45-31 win over BC.

The game impressed Notre Dame’s strength and reinforced the eye-opening power behind its engine. The Fighting Irish balanced 284 yards passing with 278 yards on the ground and went 7-for-8 in the red zone with three touchdowns. They committed three turnovers but got two back, and their fumble recovery turned a 10-play drive into a back-breaking, late second-quarter touchdown. 

The game reinforced Notre Dame as the better team, but it served as simple reminders about BC’s road ahead. There is a gap between BC and the elite tier in the ACC, but the chasm is shortening. Last season, the Eagles lost to three nationally-ranked teams by an average of 40 points. This year, it lost to three Top Ten teams by a combined 24 points, and two of those games went down to the last possession.

That’s not a consolation prize for the competitors, but it’s a sign of the Eagles’ ability to knock the glass ceiling. It’s cracking, and it’s only now a matter of time before Hafley’s bunch breaks through.

“In order to beat this team, we needed to execute at a really high level,” Hafley said. “To do that, we needed to score touchdowns in the red zone, and we didn’t do that. That’s a good team. They’re big and physical, and they did a good job stopping us. But we were in it. If we get that onside kick at the end and score, it’s a one-possession game. That’s a good team, (though), and we needed to execute at a higher level.”

Here are some of the other takeaways from Saturday’s Red Bandanna Game:

*****
First Down: Phil vs. Ian

I always found it ironic that matchups boiled down to individual players who never directly played against one another, but even I melted this game into a Phil Jurkovec-vs.-Ian Book head-to-head tête-à-tête. The larger truth, though, diversified around Jurkovec’s matchup against one of the best defenses in college football and Book’s ability to make plays against BC.

Jurkovec was two weeks removed from a separated shoulder but nearly willed the Eagles back into the game by throwing for 272 yards on 18-of-40 passing. He completed two touchdowns, including the fourth quarter throw to Hunter Long, and powered through 34 tough yards on seven carries. 

“It shows how tough he is and what a good leader he is,” Jeff Hafley said. “I’m proud of him. He made some big plays in this game. He’s fearless. He’s had a good nine weeks, and I’m excited he’s on our team right now. I don’t know if there’s a quarterback in the country I’d rather have leading our team.”

To his credit, Jurkovec didn’t complain about the shoulder and absorbed big hits when the Notre Dame defense brought pressure. He completed a third-down strike to Jehlani Galloway and floated a near-touchdown to Travis Levy, though officials overturned it under review and imposed a holding penalty for a first down, and he later zinged a 34-yard completion to Jaelen Gill

He engineered consecutive, sustained scoring drives around a bonus fumble recovery and later went 57 yards on six plays in the second quarter. He further rallied a third-quarter drive after a facemask penalty overturned an interception by hitting Hunter Long and Jaelen Gill for first down passes, and he later thundered a carry inside the Notre Dame red zone before David Bailey busted into the end zone.

*****
Second Down: Notre Dame Offense

Ian Book, meanwhile, kept the heat on the BC offense by constantly igniting the Notre Dame offense. He scored four total touchdowns, including three passing scores to Ben Skowronek, and amassed 368 total yards on 10 carries rushing and 20-of-27 passing. He was especially efficient in spreading the ball around, and he used both Skowronick and Javon McKinley as contrast receivers to the speed provided by Avery Davis and Kyren Williams.

“We really wanted to focus on keeping (Book) contained,” defensive lineman Brandon Barlow said. “We knew what kind of threat he could be out of the pocket, and he got some opportunities against us to scramble. Adjustment-wise, we want to contain any scrambling quarterback because the run game is all about executing gap leverage.”

Book found new rivets on every single machination. The offensive line opened holes for Williams and Chris Tyree, and C’Bo Flemister offered different looks at the goal line. Williams’ vision found shifts and gaps for running holes, but it further plugged blocks against blitzing linebackers. He also caught four passes on five targets as the underneath throw opened when Davis’ two explosive catches forced the Eagles to blanket him downfield.

All of that complemented big, bullying receivers who caught passes in the face of a very good secondary. Deon Jones went head-to-head against Michael Mayer, but Skowronek out-jumped Brandon Sebastian for a touchdown. He combined with McKinley for 10 catches for 111 yards on 12 targets.

“Their big guys are tough at the point of attack,” Jeff Hafley said. “They’re really tough in the red zone. That’s where big receivers show up the most. You have to play them chest-to-chest, and with all the rules against defensive backs, it’s hard. They’re a really good threat in the red zone, but our (defensive backs) fought. Ian did a good job of running around, and you can’t cover for that long.”

*****
HAF-time Hits

-I don’t remember when that tree in my backyard dropped every leaf in one sitting, but I’m officially a hard out on ever using a rake ever again. Meanwhile, my friend’s father played 18 holes of golf and went home to do yard work. Nothing like an older generation to make me feel like a giant bag of laziness on a Saturday afternoon.

-This week’s error in judgment: my wife asked me to clean the yard and put patio furniture away during College GameDay. I love her to pieces, but I’m not apologizing for treating the question like the coming of the apocalypse.

-Speaking of my wife, I told her I would fold laundry at halftime. In unrelated news, I think halftime is two minutes too short.

-I still believe the most intimidating sight in sports is Tiger Woods on the first tee with a shot to charge the leaders. I know the patrons aren’t at Augusta, but the organic tension built by steadily gaining momentum would make everyone crack. Also, I know he fell off pace on Saturday, but my stomach still backflips every time I think about Sunday Red.

*****
Third Down: Drive Time

Jeff Hafley emphasized the number of drives and their corresponding possession times as a key to beating Notre Dame. Turnovers, he said, stole possessions away from another team, even if they didn’t result in points, but BC further needed to prevent the Irish from piling up plays and yards against its defense. 

That didn’t happen in the first half, and Notre Dame piled points on the scoreboard by scoring on its first four sustained drives. The Irish gave away one drive early, but they scored three touchdowns on drives that began with a Boston College kick (either kickoff or punt). Each drive went 50 yards or longer with three 75-yard drives, and the bulk of those drives took more than three minutes off the clock.

The bonus possessions compounded that issue. Notre Dame fumbled three drives away to BC, but the Eagles gave two of them back. Both of those scored touchdowns and ultimately resulted in the difference of a two-touchdown game. No team actively relies on extra drives, but it blended the razor thin margin of turnovers against the importance of protecting the football.

That’s not to call two plays the difference in a loss. BC attacked Notre Dame at the start of both halves and sustained multiple drives against the Irish defense, but it failed to score touchdowns throughout the first half and at the start of the third quarter. In that first drive of the second half, the Eagles went 66 yards on 11 plays over nearly five minutes, but they turned the ball over on downs on a long 4th-and-1.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, scored on every sustained drive in the first half and posted three touchdowns before halftime. Turning two of BC’s drives into touchdowns with one less turnover and one less Irish touchdown offers a drastically different result and further illustrates how 45 points masks a closer game. That said, finding ways to turn those drives is what comes under review after this game.

*****
Fourth Down: Boston College Receivers

Phil Jurkovec’s two touchdown passes in the first quarter couldn’t have been more different if he tried. His first was a floated pass over a defender and into the hands of running back Travis Levy, but officials ruled the picture-perfect throw incomplete after further review. A defensive holding call elongated the drive, though, and on 2nd-and-goal, Jurkovec faked play-action against broken containment by the Notre Dame defense.

He found himself under fast fire and desperately heaved a pass off his back foot. It looked like he was trying to throw it out of the end zone, but it fell short and behind wide receiver Zay Flowers with two defenders in coverage. Flowers stopped and leaned back to make a play on the ball, and he improbably caught the pass for a go-ahead touchdown.

It stamped a solid day by BC’s receivers and emphasized why Jurkovec’s season progression spreads the ball around to different receivers. Flowers saw 12 targets but only caught three passes when Notre Dame played tight coverage on him, and his relative absence forced other receivers to step into the void. 

“We knew they played a little bit of man,” Jaelen Gill said. “I think they played a little bit more than we thought they would, and I think we handled it pretty well. The game was pretty physical, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle on the perimeter. I thought we did a good job.”

Gill caught five of his eight targets for 105 yards, and Hunter Long went 4-of-8 on targets for 59 yards and a touchdown. CJ Lewis’ catch-and-run on his first reception included 15 yards with a clearly distressed calf muscle, and Jehlani Galloway’s 12-yard, third-down reception occurred while Lewis was on the bench.

*****
Point After: Much Needed Rest

Football is standardly a physical, emotional game, but this season found a way to ratchet the intensity past maximum volume. Energy normally reserved for 40,000 fans instead hovered directly over the gridiron and cranked up an already-intense game as Boston College learned and incorporated a new, aggressive style. 

Saturday marked BC’s ninth consecutive game and second game in three weeks against a team ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 overall. That’s something most players and coaches dream about, and the Eagles certainly savored the moment. After nine straight, though, it’s time, finally, for their bodies and minds to take an emotional, needed break.

“It’s been a long nine weeks,” Jeff Hafley said, “and in the span of three weeks, we just played the No. 1 team in the country and the No. 2 team in the country. Nobody’s played the No. 1 and No. 2 team in the country. I am proud of our guys, and I know the result (against Notre Dame) isn’t what we wanted. They fought until the end, and that’s who we are. It’s about the process and not about one game, but it’s about what they’ve done since I’ve been here. I know they’re hurting right now, but we’re going to catch our breath because they deserve to catch their breath.”

It’s hard to reflect on this season’s accomplishments when two games still remain, but this rest is on the heels of some significant mileage. Isaiah McDuffie registered 16 tackles on Saturday, and Max Richardson surpassed 300 career tackles with six against Notre Dame. Zay Flowers scored the most touchdowns by a BC receiver in a single season since Alex Amidon in 2012, and David Bailey rumbled to his fifth score of the year despite the ongoing spotlight on the running game.

Aaron Boumerhi kicked three field goals for the third time this season, and BC’s 31 points were the second-most allowed by Notre Dame, second only to Clemson last week. All of this happened in the ninth consecutive game under a new head coach in a season with five games decided by one score or less.

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