Five Good Minutes: Notre Dame Football Preview With One Foot Down

To preview this weekend's Holy War matchup between the Boston College Eagles and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, we welcome burger23 of the Notre Dame blog One Foot Down for Five Good Minutes. In exchange, we answered some questions on BC over at OFD.

This is the first of two guest bloggers this week (pulling out all the stops for Holy War week). Tomorrow, we'll hear from another Irish blogger to get a slightly different take on Saturday's game.

 

BC Interruption: Much like Boston College, Notre Dame has had a string of bad luck in the turnover battle, having gone -11 in the Irish's first ten games (including a -5 performance against South Florida, -3 vs. USC and -2 at Michigan). What's been the cause of the Irish's abysmal turnover margin? Offense not protecting the ball? D not generating many turnovers? A little of A, a little of B?

One Foot Down: At the beginning of the year, I think it was a string of bad luck - Jonas Gray rolls backwards over a defender and gets the ball stripped, T.J. Jones doesn't look up on a drag route and the ball hits him in the helmet and bounces high in the air, the ball just slips out of Tommy Rees's hand in the red zone, etc. I throw those into the "fluke" category, But recently, the turnovers have been a product of one Tommy Rees.

Rees has been the source of much frustration for Irish fans this season. He'll look brilliant at times and then throw a pass that makes you wonder if he's trying to play quarterback through sense of smell alone. Much of ND's turnover problems since the first two games can be pinned mostly on poor decision making by Rees. He has a habit of throwing into triple coverage over the top when he has someone wide open underneath or throw the ball backwards on a swing pass instead of leading his receiver forward. I can't even say Rees has gotten better over the course of the year because he continues to make the same errors. He had a very nice game against Navy but threw the ball backwards on a swing pass and had a ball picked off on a lazy throw in the fourth quarter. He had a very nice game against Maryland (30/38, 296 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) so I'm hoping he can carry that over against BC and build his confidence before going to Stanford.

 

BCI: Would Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco prefer to face a more drop-back, and less mobile, QB in Chase Rettig or a run-first QB like Josh Bordner? Which QB better plays to the Irish's D's strengths?

OFD: If you had asked me this question about a month ago, I might have chosen the run-first QB. The Irish defensive line, led by senior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, was shutting down opposing running games. But now KLM is out for the year and Johnson is nursing a high ankle sprain. Starting in their place are two true freshmen, Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. Both were very highly touted out of high school, but they're still true freshmen. Both have improved their play against the run, but they're not at the same level Lewis-Moore and Johnson were.

But what both Lynch and Tuitt excel at is rushing the passer, Lynch especially. Both are much better when they know they can just rear back and get after the QB. Lynch is best known for making offensive linemen look absolutely foolish as he blows past them and is much faster than someone who weighs 265 should be. So with that, I think Diaco would much rather face Rettig all day than go up against Bordner. The freshmen are prime targets on the zone read as both players tend to be too aggressive and get out of position. If Bordner gets his requisite one series in the first half, I would expect to see him march the Eagle offense down the field, much like he did against Florida State. If he stays in, maybe the defense adjusts, but I worry about the line's ability to keep contain. C.J. Brown, Maryland's shifty backup quarterback, only got a series or two against the first-string defense, but it seemed like there were a lot of missed tackles and players out of position. At least against Rettig, the only instructions the ends need are "See QB. Tackle QB." 

 

BCI: We know the Irish are loaded with talent. Aside from the usual suspects -- Tommy Rees, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Manti T'eo, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith - who are some under-the-radar guys BC should familiarize themselves with?

OFD: On offense, I'll go with one of my favorite players, Robby Toma. The diminutive slot receiver hasn't seen the field much in his career but he always seems to do well when given the chance. In his first start of season filling in for the injured Theo Riddick last week, Toma had seven catches for 73 yards. Theo Riddick has been a bit of a disappointment this season, so it was nice to see some production from the slot receiver position. There's been a lot debate over whether Toma is better at getting open or if Rees just trusts him more than Riddick, but either way the kid produces when he sees the field. Riddick may be good to go on Saturday but I've been aching to see Robby on the field more so I'm anxious to see if the Maryland game was the norm or just a one time thing.

I already mentioned him, but watch out for Aaron Lynch on defense. He knows how to do one thing and that's attack the quarterback. He enrolled early last winter and created quite the buzz when he was in the backfield constantly in the spring game and absolutely embarrassed Trevor Robinson, a four-year starter at guard. There also might still be a Kirk Cousins-shaped imprint in the field at Notre Dame Stadium after Lynch drove him into the turf multiple times back in September. Since then, he's been a little quite, but that's probably due to the number of option and spread teams Notre Dame has faced this season. Again, I think he's vulnerable to the zone read and other misdirection plays and he's not as good against the run as Ethan Johnson, but he's a guy that could cause all kinds of problems for the Boston College offense. (As you can probably tell I'm very excited about Lynch. He's the defensive lineman Charlie Weis could never recruit so he's like a shiny new toy to me.)

 

BCI: Who's better now - Manti Te'o or Luke Kuechly? And who will be the better pro?

OFD: Who's better right now, at this very instant? Luke Kuechly, simply because Te'o is playing with a high ankle sprain. But that's a bit of a cop-out, so I'll give you a real answer.

Te'o's biggest strength is his incredible instincts. He sniffs out screens and reverses better than anyone I've ever seen at the college level. His numbers don't look that great this year because he's bascially playing on one leg. He hasn't made many big plays this year and his number of tackles isn't nearly as high Kuechly's. But he's been a warrior this year. Ethan Johnson hurt his ankle and missed multiple games. Te'o hurt his ankle and has just played through it. The difference is that Johnson has a talented backup while behind Te'o on the depth chart is a sophomore that hasn't played much outside of special teams followed by prayers and positive thoughts. An injured Te'o is much better than no Te'o, so I give him a lot of credit for being willing to play with pain. Kuechly, of course, is a tackling machine and pretty much covers the entire field himself. The fact that he has 168 tackles just blows my mind. I guess for me it comes down to who I would rather have on my team, and, honestly, I'm tired of seeing Dan Fox whiff on tackles, so I think I would pick Keuchly. Having someone as reliable as him would be such a boon for this Irish defense. But before Irish fans start sending me hate mail, this is like choosing between a million dollars worth of gold and a million dollars worth of diamonds - I don't think you can go wrong either way.

As for the NFL - I don't know. That sort of thing is so hard to predict. I have no doubt that both players will be drafted fairly high and frankly I'd be thrilled to have either of them on my team (the Browns, by the way. /sad panda). The NFL draft is such a crapshoot and guys that are studs in college flame out while nobodies turn into Pro Bowlers. So I will take the cop-out here and say and I'm sure both players will do just fine at the next level.

BCI: Already Michael, Fredo wants to know. Is this a big-R rivalry, little-R rivalry or no rivalry at all? 

OFD: I know a lot of Notre Dame fans like to downplay this game, but it's hard to deny that this is definitely a rivalry. I have to go with a little-R rivalry, though.

BC just doesn't get Irish fans' dander up like USC or Michigan. ND has a long tradition with USC. The Irish have played the Trojans 83 times, going all the way back to 1926. Meanwhile, in addition to its proximity to South Bend, Michigan tried to kill the Notre Dame football program back in the early part of the 20th century by blacklisting them from the eventual Big Ten Conference. So there's plenty of bad blood between the schools. Notre Dame started playing BC in 1975 and have only played 20 games against each other. Notre Dame just has more history with the Trojans and the Wolverines.

But don't get me wrong - I don't take this game lightly. I don't want to lose this game. We're the superior Catholic school and you're little brother and wake up the echoes and so on and so forth. But I only have so much hatred to go around and big chunk of it already goes to U$C and scUM.

 

BCI: On conference realignment, while things have seemingly died down over the last few weeks, the Irish have the potential to change all that very quickly. Should Notre Dame's options become "join a conference in all sports" or "get left out," would you rather see the Irish in the Big Ten or the ACC? And if the Irish ever join one of those two conferences as all-sports members, who you bringing with you?

OFD: I'll give you my top five choices: 1) ACC, 2) ACC, 3) ACC, 4) ACC, 5) Big XII I guess, but ACC is close. The B1G ranks somewhere below the Sun Belt, but above the MAC.

Many Notre Dame fans, myself included, worry that Notre Dame will lose its individuality if it joins the Big Ten. When you're a small Catholic school in a small Indiana town, you need something unique to set you apart, not just to football recruits but to high school students around the country. Notre Dame has that now with football independence. Good or bad, ND gets mentioned on Sportscenter every week. The Irish also have the flexibility to schedule games in California or Texas or the East Coast to market the school across the country. If Notre Dame joins the Big Ten, they lose that. Playing games in Iowa or Minnesota doesn't add anything. Yeah, we'll still have OOC games, but in a sixteen team league (which is what I'm assuming in this scenario) how much freedom would we really have? Would we want to schedule USC, Navy, and Boston College every year and basically lock ourselves into the same schedule year in or year out or would drop some of our traditional rivalries? Neither of those options are particularly appealing.

Those problems aren't as bad in the ACC. Yes, it will still be difficult to schedule our rivals (USC, Michigan, Navy would probably take up most of our OOC game with Purdue, Michigan State, and Stanford possibly falling by the wayside) but the ACC stretches across the whole East Coast, making it much more appealing. We can still play games in the Northeast against Pitt, BC, and Syracuse (games in Yankee Stadium and the Meadowlands would be a natural fit). We can gain a foothold in the Carolinas and Virginia. We can even play yearly games in Florida against FSU and Miami. Of course, staying independent is priority numero uno, but if ND ABSOLUTELY HAS to join a conference, I wouldn't lose much sleep if the Irish took their talents to the Atlantic Coast.

Now, who we would bring along (presumably to make the conference an even 16) is an interesting question. I can see Notre Dame trying to convince Navy to come sign up in an attempt to keep the series alive. I'm sure Navy would jump at the chance to stay with the big boys and they make sense geographically, but I don't know how the rest of the ACC would feel about adding a service academy. If that doesn't work, Rutgers might be a good choice. It's another New England school ND can play in New York City and it wouldn't be a bad addition academically.

 

BCI: Last one. Prediction time. I won't even bother to ask who you've got in this one so I'll just skip ahead to a score prediction. Will the Irish show the Eagles any mercy in this one?

OFD: While I do have the Irish winning, I think the 24 point line I saw earlier this week is a tad ridiculous. I know this game is a bit of a mismatch on paper, but 24 points is hard for any team to cover, and when you add in the rivalry game factor I think you come out with a game closer than expected.

Boston College will come ready to play; I have no doubt about that. I worry a little bit about ND looking ahead to Stanford, but it's Senior Day so I don't think that will be a problem. I expect a game somewhere between the Wake Forest and Maryland game. I don't think BC will let ND dominate them like Maryland did but I don't think they'll keep it as close as Wake. I think BC will play tough at the beginning but eventually get worn down the by the physical play of Notre Dame's lines. I don't think the game will ever really be in doubt but the final score will be close enough that the crazier section of the Irish fan base will declare this game a failure and demand Kelly be fired (but then again, that happens evey week anyway). I'll say the score ends up somewhere around 31-14 ND.

Note that I also thought the Navy (-21) and Maryland (-20.5) spreads were also way too high and we won those games by 42 and 24 points, respectively. So am I going for the reverse jinx and I want the score to be 52-3? The world will never know.

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