After pulling the ACC upset of the season against formerly #16 NC State, Boston College travels to South Bend this weekend to take on #18 Notre Dame in the Holy War. To preview the game, we sat down with our friend Patrick Sullivan at One Foot Down.
1. Marcus Freeman has certainly had his share of ups and downs in his first year as head coach. What is the mood around the team like? How would you rate his coaching job so far?
There’s no doubt that it’s been a roller coaster season for the team, its new coaching staff, and the fan base. The off-season was fun as hell, because Freeman was crushing the recruiting trail and saying all the right things and just being super charismatic and cool and handsome — essentially the exact opposite of a former coach who will remain nameless. And then even after the season opener, Irish fans felt pretty good — ND lost to Ohio State, but they led for much of the game in Columbus and held the Buckeyes vaunted offense to just 21 points. Things looked promising.
Then, of course, the rest of the season has been just a wild, inconsistent thrill ride. Marshall and Stanford — two teams with a combined 7-11 record in non-ND games this year — both beat the Irish in non-fluke games, and yet the Irish also blew out the likes of Clemson, North Carolina, and Syracuse while also beating BYU. Navy and Cal both nearly took the Irish down as well, and so it’s been a really odd team to follow and understand in 2022.
I’d say the mood, overall, is mostly enthused and hopeful for the future — which is a breath of fresh air after multiple fan meltdowns and “the sky is falling” feelings after the Marshall and Stanford games. ND won’t be competing for the CFP or a national title in the next year or two, most likely, but if Freeman and Co. can sustain this higher level of recruiting, finally get themselves a top-shelf QB, and continue learning on the job to develop into better coaches, then I think we could be talking about Notre Dame as a dark horse title contender in 2024 or 2025. Freeman is young, talented, and improving — and considering his team seems to have more trouble getting motivated for bad teams than it does in competing with good teams, that seems like an easier problem to fix. Add in that the players love playing for him, and I think the vibes are very good right now and could be spectacular in just a short couple years.
I’d say overall, I rate his coaching job as 7/10 so far. Before Clemson, it probably would have been a 5 or 6, but that was an awesome and complete performance over a then-top-5 opponent, and we always knew the first year under a first-time head coach would have some growing pains, so being 7-3 with a decent chance to go 9-3 is a pretty darn good outcome, especially considering the 3-3 start.
2. Who is a name to watch for in this potent (if inconsistent) ND offense?
I’ll begin with the guys who get the biggest workload in this run-first offense, RBs Audric Estime (711 yards, 5.7 YPC, 9 TDs) and Logan Diggs (576 yards, 4.6 YPC, 1 TD). Both true sophomores, they’ve been really good this season in replacing Kyren Williams at the position, and Estime especially is a HOSS who’s starting to really look like a more svelte/modern version of Jerome Bettis. Both are a handful for defenses to bring down, and with how this offensive line has performed through much of this year, Estime and Diggs have had lots of room to run.
I have to mention TE Michael Mayer as well, considering he’s the Irish’s best player and a surefire All-American. He’s broken every Notre Dame tight end career record this year as only a junior, and is a complete mismatch for both linebackers and DBs thanks to his size, strength, route-running, sneaky athleticism, and hands. He’s got 54 catches for 647 yards and 7 touchdowns so far this year, and we can only imagine what those numbers might look like with a better QB throwing him the ball. Also, he’s a devastating run blocker, so look for him to help pave the way for Estime and Diggs and speedster APB Chris Tyree.
Finally, I want to mention LT Joe Alt. He’s already a potential All-American as a true sophomore, and his rise to stardom has been kinda wild, considering he was a 3-star recruit who played tight end in high school and started 2021 buried on the depth chart, as most 3-star tackle prospects would. He ended up being somewhat of a savior on the 2021 line that had a ton of issues for the first half of that season, and then held onto the LT spot for this year, where he’s been just exceptional both in pass and run blocking. With a dad that played in the NFL, we probably should have seen this coming as a potential future for him, but it’s still been a super pleasant surprise that he’s become an almost guaranteed 1st round NFL Draft pick in 2024.
3. BC’s O-line has struggled with consistency and injuries this year. How does ND’s front 7 line up?
They’re pretty darn good and have a pretty deep collection of veteran talent, but like everyone else on this 2022 ND team, they’ve struggled some with consistency this season. They’ve had excellent performances (e.g. holding Clemson to 90 yards rushing and sacking the Tigers 4 times) and they’ve had pretty bad ones too (e.g. allowing 5.5 YPC against Navy, letting Marshall’s RB gash them all day, etc.). Overall, Notre Dame is T-16th in the country in sacks (29 on the year), so they’re probably licking their chops a bit this week knowing BC has been struggling to protect Phil Jurkovec and Emmett Morehead.
The big name to know is DE Isaiah Foskey, who’s currently tied for 6th in the nation with 8.5 sacks on the year and is just one away from setting the Notre Dame career record held by Justin Tuck. Foskey is a fantastic athlete who can get to the QB lightning-quick, so it will be interesting to see how BC plans to slow him down on the edge.
Other names to know up front include the Ademilola twins (DT Jayson and DE Justin), who are both old vets who know how to get penetration and cause a ruckus in the backfield, and DL Rylie Mills, who’s a monster of a man who, when he’s “on,” can be somewhat unblockable.
Finally, the ND linebackers are either experienced but limited athletically/in terms of speed, or young and fast but not completely trustworthy to know what to do at all times. They’ve been dealing with some injuries at the position (Bo Bauer is out for the year, J.D. Bertrand and Jack Kiser are both hobbled and might not play this weekend), so it will be interesting to see how young guys like Prince Kollie step up in an increased role.
4. Drew Pyne has become the de facto starter for the Irish since Tyler Buchner’s season-ending injury early in the season. How has he performed?
Drew Pine, in all seriousness, has had some nice games/moments since he took over for Buchner. He looked really good against North Carolina and BYU, and had some other nice halves (2nd half of Cal, 1st half of Navy) and some additional really important moments when he did everything he needed to do, as the QB of a run-first offense, for the team to win the game (e.g. some big runs/scrambles and a couple really nice throws against Clemson, despite only throwing for 85 yards on 9/17 passing that evening).
Overall, though, it’s become quite clear why Pyne was never able to supplant Jack Coan in 2021 or Tyler Buchner heading into 2022, and why he was the backup in both scenarios. He’s simply not a QB who’s ever going to be THE reason the Irish win a big game. He’s inconsistent, has some accuracy issues, and didn’t grow as much as people thought he would when he was a hotshot prospect early in his high school career getting offered by Alabama — having his passes tipped/batted down at the line has been a constant issue, no matter the opponent. Add in that his arm strength is pretty meh and he doesn’t throw a good deep ball, and it really limits what this offense can accomplish.
So, the Irish have adopted the strategy of leaning on their big, experienced, talented offensive line and stacked running back depth, and if they ever feel the need to have Pyne throw the ball, the focus is typically in getting the ball to Michael Mayer as his security blanket, or to make short, high-percentage throws to the backs and receivers and let them make plays in space. That will work a lot of the time, assuming the offensive line can get a push.
But it’s become quite evident that Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees also need to start bringing in better QB talent to the program to ensure this kind of QB play isn’t what they always have to work with (Buchner wasn’t super impressive in his two starts against OSU and Marshall, either). It will be critical that ND brings in a talented grad transfer QB in the off-season, to help bridge the gap and be more competitive/versatile offensively between now and when the cavalry arrives in the form of 2023 QB Kenny Minchey (not yet committed, but ND is now leading for him after he decommitted from Pitt this week) and 2024 QB C.J. Carr, who’s a 5-star and Lloyd Carr’s grandson, which is really fun.
5. How do the Irish get the win? What about Boston College?
Notre Dame wins this by running the ball the way they have against Clemson, Syracuse, UNC, etc., and by playing a clean game in terms of turnovers. If they can do those things, then the other key will be the ND defense keeping BC (specifically, Zay Flowers) in front of them, limiting the big plays they’ve had a tendency to give up at inopportune times. If they do that and get their typical pass rush and blocked punt (ND is currently #1 in the country in blocked punts with 7 this year), then that should be enough to win, even if Pyne doesn’t do much with his arm.
For BC to get the win, the biggest thing will be completely shutting down the ND rushing attack. If they can force the Irish into 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations where Pyne is forced to make the right reads, accurate throws, and not have his passes batted down, then the Eagles defense stands a great chance of holding Rees’s offense to a manageable scoring total.
On the other side, if BC can run the ball with some success so as to force ND’s hand to sell-out a bit more to stop it, then there will be some opportunities for Flowers and co. to get behind the Irish secondary, make some momentum-changing plays, get into the red zone (where ND is quite poor at stopping teams from scoring), and maybe score enough points to top an ND offense that can’t do what it does best.
Also, BC not allowing ND to block a punt would go a long way, but based on the last few games, I don’t think Eagles fans would be wise to assume that will happen (which is a wild thing to say about a team blocking a punt in one specific game).
Thanks to Patrick for his time. Our Q&A with them will be on their site soon. BC vs. ND kicks off at 2:30 on Saturday.