Notre Dame improved to 9-2 with a convincing 40-7 victory over Boston College. The offense sputtered early, but in the second half the Irish blew the game open and earned their seventh double-digit win of the season and fifth win with at least a 30-point margin.
There were several key takeaways from the win.
The Run Defense Has Truly Turned The Corner — It was odd watching the Notre Dame run defense through the first seven games of the season. After a rough start (461 yards in the first two games), the run defense seemed to get back on track over the next three games, as the defense gave up just 91.3 rushing yards per game. Then came struggles against USC (171 yards) and Michigan (303 yards).
Notre Dame dominated Virginia Tech and Duke on the ground, but the next two weeks would provide a true test. What’s interesting is that Notre Dame has given up an average of 204.5 rush yards per game the last two weeks, but in context that is actually an outstanding performance by the rush defense.
Navy and Boston College were two of the top five rushing offenses in the country, and the Irish held both well below their season averages. Over the last four games, the Irish run defense held Virginia Tech 79 yards below its season rush average, Duke to 71 yards below its average, Navy to 77 yards below its average and Boston College was held 154 yards below its season average.
Clark Lea has all three levels of his defense playing at an extremely high level, but the improved play of the Irish defensive line has been the true foundation to this improved success, and that was never more evident than during the win over Boston College. The ends - led by Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji - were outstanding against the BC tackles, who are pretty good. Up the middle, the banged up interior defensive tackles battled their tails off and outplayed the BC guards snap-after-snap.
The outstanding play of the Irish front four allowed the linebackers to play an aggressive, downhill game and allowed the backers to roam free to the sideline on BC’s outside runs.
Tackling Was Excellent … Again — Notre Dame averaged 11 missed tackles per game during the fist seven games of the season (according to Pro Football Focus). Over the last four games the defense has averaged just 6.8 missed tackles per game, and it had just four missed tackles against Boston College.
What makes this even more impressive is that Boston College running back AJ Dillon leads the nation in making defenders miss, with opponents registering 75 missed tackles against him. After averaging 7.3 missed tackles per game coming into the matchup against Notre Dame, he forced just two missed tackles against the Irish.
His backup, David Bailey, had forced an average of 2.6 missed tackles per game on just 12 carries per game, but he forced just one missed tackle on 10 carries against the Irish.
Dillon weighs 250 pounds and Bailey weighs 241 pounds, but the undersized Notre Dame linebackers and defensive backs were aggressive and more than willing to bang with the big BC backs.
Spreading The Wealth Makes The Offense Better — There are a multitude of reasons why the offense has sputtered at times this season, but one of the top reasons has been an unwillingness to spread the ball around. Far too often we saw quarterback Ian Book lock in too much on his top one or two targets. The unwillingness to go through his progressions and take what the defense gave him - which was a strength of his in 2018 - hindered the offense.
In recent games we have seen Book get back to his old form, and that continued against Boston College. Book rushed his reads a bit early, but when he settled in his willingness to take what the defense gave him allowed the offense to get rolling. Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet were clearly focal points of the game plan, but we saw Chris Finke, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Tommy Tremble all get opportunities to make plays.
Claypool and Kmet did the dirty work, Finke was a chain mover and Lenzy gave the knockout punch with a 61-yard touchdown run.
When Book is going through his progressions effectively he tends to stay in the pocket longer, and when he stays in the pocket longer it also makes him more dangerous as a runner. The reason is the longer he stays in the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield, the deeper the linebackers and secondary players get into their drops, which gives him a lot more room to work when he does take off and run.
The last three weeks have taught us that when Book gets his legs going, it makes him more effective as a thrower.
The Offensive Line Continues To Struggle In The Run Game — My two biggest complaints about the offensive line the last two seasons was obvious yesterday. I mentioned earlier that Notre Dame’s yards allowed on defense are deceiving, as the unit has been much better than the numbers suggest.
The opposite is true for the offense. Notre Dame’s line didn’t block nearly as well as its 252 rushing yards suggests. The quarterbacks racked up 109 of those yards, including 43 yards with the backup offensive line in the game. Most of the 66 yards that Book put up were on scrambles. Another 61 yards came on a jet sweep from Lenzy on a snap where the line played almost no role in the play working.
Notre Dame’s running backs had just 82 yards on 25 carries (3.3 yards per carry) against a Boston College defense that gave up . The offensive line spent way too much time catching defenders, and getting knocked off the ball. It has nothing to do with the Irish linemen not being good enough to dominate, it is a technical issue that has plagued this unit for the last two seasons.
The Irish line also struggled mightily with Boston College’s line stunts, which is another issue that has plagued the line for much of the last two seasons.
Notre Dame’s rushing offense has been incredibly erratic and inconsistent the last two years, and these two factors are a huge reason why. The inability to consistently establish the run game is something that holds this offense back, and until Brian Kelly addresses the problem it will continue to persist, regardless of how much talent the line possesses … and trust me, this line has a lot of talent.