Sports, Football

Notebook: Book, Irish Defensive Line Cause Eagles Issues in Holy War Defeat

A road contest against No. 15 Notre Dame provided Boston College football with the perfect opportunity to reset and nab a morale-boosting win, following a bye week and a disappointing loss to Florida State in the Red Bandana game. But in the 25th edition of the Holy War, there was only one team that looked up for the challenge, and it wasn’t the Eagles. 

Behind a dynamic performance from quarterback Ian Book, who threw three touchdowns and also led the Fighting Irish in rushing, Notre Dame shook off a slow start, rattling off 34 points in a row to end the contest. The Fighting Irish outgained BC 501-191 and handed the Eagles a humbling 40-7 defeat that dropped them below .500 for the first time this season. Here are four observations from the loss, which puts BC in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2015. 

The Notre Dame Defensive Front Gets it Done

Entering Saturday, the BC offensive line had arguably been the Eagles’ strongest unit. In addition to paving the way for the nation’s fifth-best rushing attack by yards per game, BC’s offensive line had allowed just six total sacks. In the 25th Holy War, though, the Eagles’ blockers had arguably their worst game of the season. 

It started on BC’s first drive of the game. On 3rd-and-8, Dennis Grosel dropped back to pass, and the Eagles left AJ Dillon in to block. Even with the extra man in, a delayed safety blitz from Alohi Gilman caught the Eagles unaware and left Grosel dead to rights. Then, Adetokunbo Ogundeji beat Ben Petrula off the snap on 3rd-and-8 in the second quarter and stripped Grosel, though Alec Lindstrom was able to cover it up and prevent a turnover. Finally, both Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem got to Grosel in the third quarter, with the Eagles trailing by multiple scores. All told, Notre Dame’s defensive line racked up four sacks and did an excellent job collapsing the pocket on Grosel when they didn’t get home. 

BC didn’t just struggle in pass-blocking, though. Notre Dame held the dynamic duo of Dillon and David Bailey to a combined 24 carries for 82 yards, despite entering the game averaging 221.6 yards per game. There just wasn’t much room to run, and both backs had to fight for every yard they got. The longest run of the game that wasn’t a scramble? A 15-yard Dillon run off left tackle, where the junior wasn’t touched until he was nearly at the sideline that came on the Eagles’ second possession of the game. Unfortunately, as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that that kind of hole, even for a normally prolific BC rushing attack, wasn’t going to be available often. 

Manufacturing Defensive Pressure 

Unsurprisingly, with the departure of stars Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray, the Eagles’ defensive line has struggled to manufacture pressure this season. BC’s best pass-rusher by total sacks has been linebacker Max Richardson, and even he had recorded just 3.5 sacks entering Saturday’s matchup. In the early going, however, the Eagles’ defensive line looked anything but anemic. Using a variety of different fronts and changing up formations before the snap, defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan made Book uncomfortable for much of the first half. 

On one particularly impressive sequence, Richard Yeargin forced Book out of the pocket with some pressure off the edge, and Tanner Karafa utilized a twist stunt to sneak between two linemen and drop the senior quarterback for a loss of eight. In the end, that Karafa sack was the only one BC managed, but for much of the first three quarters, the Eagles’ defensive front more than held its own against a Notre Dame offensive line that had allowed just 13 sacks in its first 11 games. 

Book Wasn’t Easy to Read 

Last week, in a blowout win of then-No. 23 Navy, Book’s dual-threat nature was on full display. The senior threw for 284 yards and five touchdowns, while also adding 31 more on the ground to lead the Irish in rushing. On Saturday, he again led the Irish in both passing and rushing yards, utilizing his athleticism and pocket awareness to avoid pressure and get outside the BC pass rush. It began on the first drive of the game, when Book escaped for 13 yards to earn a first down. He finished the day with 12 carries for 66 yards, often extending plays and picking up extra yards to frustrate an Eagles front that often got pressure but couldn’t quite bring him down. 

Even when the senior didn’t move outside the pocket, he was still effective, keeping his eyes downfield and finding one of his receivers. On 3rd-and-6 early in the first quarter, despite being in the grasp of Isaiah McDuffie, Book kept his composure and got the ball to Chris Finke—who nabbed seven balls for 71 yards and a touchdown—for seven yards and an impressive first-down conversion. He did miss some throws—including a strike to tight end Cole Kmet over the middle that would have been a touchdown—but he adjusted to the BC game plan well and eventually finished the day with 305 total yards, more than enough to beat an Eagles defense that was on the field for nearly 35 minutes. 

BC’s Offense Can’t Find Its Rhythm

The Eagles’ offense, which had topped the 500-yard mark in four of the past five games, struggled all afternoon to get in the flow of things. BC managed more than 20 yards on just three of their 14 possessions and went three-and-out four times. In fact, roughly 44 percent of the Eagles’ total yards came on a 16-play, 84-yard march that resulted in BC’s only score of the game. 

Big plays were also few-and-far between for BC. A 39-yard bomb from Grosel to Kobay White was the Eagles’ longest play of the game, and BC had just three total plays of greater than 15 yards—one of which was a 24-yard Grosel scramble on a broken passing play. Explosive plays often get an offense going, but unfortunately for the Eagles, there was little offensive action to swing the momentum in their favor. Oddly enough, head coach Steve Addazio rarely opted to go deep after that despite the good touch Grosel displayed on the throw to White, preferring quick throws and screen passes. The excellent Irish defensive line might have had something to do with that decision, but it’s surprising that even with BC trailing by multiple scores for the entirety of the second half, the Eagles made little attempt to manufacture big gains.

Featured Image by Michael Conroy / AP Photo

November 24, 2019