Notebook: Notre Dame Exposes Gaps in BC’s Defense in Holy War Blowout

The Holy War actually looked like a war for a while, with evenly matched teams going to battle, and a victory that would be hard-fought and earned, not lopsided and anticlimactic. Alumni Stadium buzzed with energy as Boston College and the University of Notre Dame clashed on the football field. For the entire first half and some of the third quarter, it looked like it would come down to the wire, and that the Eagles might perhaps pull off a surprise victory against their rivals, the Fighting Irish.

Then, trailing 14-13 in the third quarter, on 4th and 1, Jon Hilliman got stuffed short of the first and BC turned the ball over on downs. On the ensuing drive, Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush torched the Eagles’ defense for a 46-yard run that took the Irish into the red zone. His teammate Tony Jones took it into the end zone a few plays later, increasing Notre Dame’s lead to 21-13 and starting the onslaught that doomed BC’s chances in the game.

In the end, the Eagles suffered a demoralizing 49-20 home loss to the Irish, a brutal second half erasing the momentum and energy of the first half. Here are four takeaways from the game.

A Tale of Two Halves

The two halves could not have been more different. In the first half, BC (1-2) and Notre Dame (2-1) remained competitive in most statistical categories. Notre Dame gained 218 yards on the ground, including 167 from Josh Adams alone. BC, on the other hand, gained 117 yards on the ground, with Jonathan Hilliman contributing 94 yards alone. While the Irish outgained the Eagles on the ground, BC dominated in the air, with Anthony Brown racking up 111 yards in the air while Wimbush contributed just 53 for Notre Dame. At halftime, Notre Dame led 14-10, but it was anyone’s game.

The second half, however, was a completely different story. BC’s run offense faltered, earning just 68 yards on the ground in the second half. Brown finished 24-for-40 with 215 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks. BC put up just 10 points on the board in the second half. Notre Dame, meanwhile, methodically picked apart the Eagles’ defense, breaking through for 297 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns in the second half.

It was an ugly half, to say the least. The turning point came after Hilliman’s stuffed fourth-down conversion attempt and Notre Dame’s ensuing touchdown. From there, it seemed the Eagles were reeling and unable to regain their footing in the game.

BC did find the end zone one more time, when Charlie Callinan pulled in a pass from Brown in the fourth quarter for his second touchdown of the day, and then made a defensive stand to force a punt on Notre Dame’s following drive.

“The game is fully in reach, energy was high, guys were pushing,” Callinan said after the game of that stretch in the fourth quarter.

But what little momentum had been built up died away as Hilliman fumbled and Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford fell on the ball, giving the Irish prime field position at BC’s 35-yard line. Unsurprisingly, Notre Dame converted the turnover into a touchdown, and the Eagles’ best chance at turning the tide of the game was washed away.

Run Defense Breakdown

Head coach Steve Addazio was blunt after the game. “We didn’t stop the run,” he said. “That was a huge deal in that game. There was like three runs that comprised most of their offense in the first half.”

In fact, big runs comprised most of the Irish’s offense on the day in total. Wimbush, who struggled in the air, relied on the ground game to push Notre Dame past the Eagles. The Irish finished the day with just 96 passing yards, but 515 rushing yards. BC just couldn’t find a solution to Notre Dame’s ground attack.

Wimbush earned 207 yards on the ground, shattering a 50-year school record for rushing yards from a quarterback. Adams gained 234 yards on the day, averaging almost 13 yards per carry. Wimbush broke free for a 65-yard touchdown run in the game, while Adams earned 64- and 65-yard rushes.

It was an uncharacteristic breakdown from a BC defense that typically anchors the team. Addazio admitted that the chunk runs served as the biggest difference maker in the end. “Those chunks are what torqued this game right there because it was a close game,” he said.

It is certainly true that the big runs came at the most inopportune moments. Wimbush and Adams ran for 46 and 65 yards, respectively, on third downs. Adams exploded for runs of 36 and 64 yards on separate occasions while deep in Notre Dame territory. Wimbush’s 65-yard touchdown run, which effectively ended BC’s chances at a comeback, also came on a third down.

Landry Strategy Falls Short

Harold Landry, a future first-round draft pick and the undisputed star of BC’s defense, continued to have limited playing time against the Irish. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the Irish scored at least 21 of their points while Landry was off the field.

“It wasn’t the ends that created those missed gaps right there,” Addazio said after the game, defending his strategy to rest Landry. “That wasn’t the problem with those runs hitting. That much I know.”

It’s reasonable to say that Landry’s biggest strength is on the pass rush, not run defense. But it’s also reasonable to say that it is galling for fans to watch their defense fall apart without the best player on the field. The strategy seemed, implausibly, to extend into the red zone. Even when Notre Dame threatened to score, Landry remained on the sidelines. Even if the Landry strategy is designed to keep him fresh late in the game, it seems logical that he’d be used in high-priority situations. Keeping Landry on the sidelines when Notre Dame is in its own territory is one thing, but keeping him on the sidelines when the Irish are in the red zone is another thing entirely.

Offensive Improvement

The second-half defensive collapse overshadowed some very real offensive contributions and improvement. Ben Petrula, who has been thrust into playing center for the first time in his career, looked much better against Notre Dame than he did against Wake Forest. Jon Hilliman rushed for 122 yards, the most he’s accumulated in a single game since 2015. Even after putting up strong numbers, Hilliman still expressed his disappointment in a noticeably subdued post-game interview.

“Honestly, there was zero doubt in my mind that we were going to win this game,” Hilliman said.

Wide receiver Charlie Callinan also had himself a career day. His two touchdowns receptions amounted to BC’s only touchdowns on the day, and both were impressive catches.

Boston College football

Boston College football

After the game, Callinan said that the touchdown plays were drawn up after studying film from Notre Dame’s loss against Georgia last week. “We knew there was a good possibility that that play would come open,” Callinan explained. “When he called that play, my eyes lit up, and I guess so did Anthony’s, and he threw a strike right in there perfect position, and I got to go up and make a play.”

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor

September 17, 2017

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