Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith couldn’t contain his anticipation for the game any longer. “I’m very excited when it comes to dressing up appropriately and being in style,” Smith said.
Smith’s confession summed up the main focus of fans heading into this week’s Shamrock Series game at Fenway Park, where College Football Playoff contender, the University of Notre Dame (9-1), takes on Boston College (3-7, 0-7 ACC). Rather than the game, people have paid more attention to the uniforms—Notre Dame will wear special Green Monster-themed uniforms and BC will counter with throwback jerseys commemorating the 30th anniversary of their 1985 Cotton Bowl victory and Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary against Miami—than the historic venue.
Fans have good reasons for treating the outcome of the game as a mere formality, with Vegas installing Notre Dame as an overwhelming 16-point favorite. Between BC’s anemic offense and Notre Dame’s general dominance, anything other than another comfortable victory for the Fighting Irish would qualify as an upset.
Coach Brian Kelly’s squad is paced by an explosive offense. Scoring 36.2 points per game, the Irish have scored 11 touchdowns this season of more than 50 yards. According to Football Outsiders, Notre Dame averages over 10 yards per play on 27.4 percent of drives, fifth among FBS teams. The three-headed monster of quarterback DeShone Kizer, running back C.J. Prosise, and receiver Will Fuller have paced the team.
Kizer, a sophomore dual-threat, has performed beyond expectations since replacing the injured Malik Zaire in the second game of the season. Kizer has accounted for 24 total touchdowns, 16 through the air and eight on the ground. Most impressively, he has completed 66.2 percent of his passes, 16th among FBS quarterbacks, and has thrown just six interceptions, despite playing in an offense that looks to stretch the field with big plays. He has a very strong arm, as well as an ability to move well in the pocket while searching for an open throwing lane. As a runner, Kizer adds an extra dimension to the offense, as defenses must account for him on read option plays.
The extra attention paid to Kizer has certainly benefited Prosise. The converted receiver has rushed for 975 yards and 11 touchdowns, while averaging an impressive 6.6 yards per carry. Kelly looks to get Prosise to the edge, where he can deploy his speed. He has been one of the most explosive backs in the country, with 18 runs of more than 15 yards. Along with Kizer, he has led a Notre Dame rushing attack that averages well over 200 yards per game. Occasionally, Notre Dame’s desire to get to the outside has led to some sideways runs that go nowhere. The Irish rank 99th in the nation in offensive plays that end behind the line of scrimmage. Despite missing most of the last two games with a concussion, Prosise is expected to suit up for Saturday’s game.
Fuller is the main beneficiary of the continued excellence of the run game. As the team’s primary receiver, he has amassed 937 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season, while averaging 19.9 yards per reception. Notre Dame likes to target Fuller on deep routes, particularly off play action, where extra defenders must commit to stopping the run.
Against BC, look for Notre Dame to remain committed to the ground game. Its ability to gash a defense with runs to the outside bodes well for a matchup with the nation’s top run defense, which is far more fearsome between the tackles than on the perimeter. If the Fighting Irish can establish a consistent run game, it could be a long day for the BC defense. With its secondary’s depth tested for the first time all season, the Eagles allowed four pass plays of over 20 yards against NC State in their last game. Expect the Irish to send Fuller deep fairly often, confident in their star’s ability to beat BC’s man coverage. With their offensive balance, as well as an explosive nature, BC’s defense must limit the big plays—Don Brown’s unit has surrendered just 15 plays of over 40 yards, second in the nation—to keep BC fans in their expensive seats.
On defense, the secondary remains the Irish’s strength this season, as the team ranks 36th in passing yards allowed per game. Opponents haven’t exploited Notre Dame through the air consistently, as a strong defensive line aides the capable secondary. Senior defensive tackle Romeo Okwara ranks eighth in the nation with nine sacks and senior defensive end Sheldon Day has added 13.5 tackles for loss, leading the team. The strong pass coverage is the driving force behind the defense’s success on third down, as they allow opponents to convert just 31.7 percent of the time, 15th in the country.
Run defense might be the one chink in Notre Dame’s armor, as the Irish allow 163.4 yards per game on the ground, with opposing backs getting 4.49 yards per carry. Despite its strong play in passing situations, the Notre Dame defensive front can sometimes be driven back by a physical offensive line on run plays. Wake Forest, a team not normally known for its rushing prowess, used its run game to effectively control the clock against the Irish last week. Despite losing 28-7, the Deacons controlled the ball for just over 35 minutes, minimizing the time Notre Dame’s potent offense possessed the ball. The strategy provides an interesting template for an upset-minded opponent.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, it should be able to divert most of its resources to corralling the run game on Saturday. BC’s struggles through the air have rendered the offense one-dimensional. Even so, Notre Dame must be on guard for deep play-action throws from John Fadule, something Steve Addazio has added to the offense in recent weeks. The Irish don’t want to allow BC to string together successful drives, which could energize the underdog.
Marked as the road team in their own city, the Eagles will obviously enter the game with a great deal of momentum. Even with the added desire to win, the recent bye week and the tendency of underdogs to rise to the occasion in rivalry games will take an effort vastly superior to any that the Eagles have produced this season for them to crush Notre Dame’s playoff aspirations. While the actual game might not offer them much consolation, at least the players can take solace in their throwback jerseys, remnants of a bygone era in which theirs was the team to beat.
Featured Image by Michael Conroy / AP Photo