IRISH COMEBACK PUT ON HOLDposted by John Vannie
Once again, Notre Dame’s defense played well enough to win, but the offense and special teams combined to put them in impossible situations after the Eagles scored on their opening drive. L.V. Whitworth broke off a 52-yard run and Callender covered the last seven on the next play, but a missed extra point left the score at 6-0. The Irish defenders kept it there for the next 25 minutes.
Notre Dame had just executed its best offensive play of the half when disaster struck. Jimmy Clausen hit Robbie Parris with a 25-yard pass to give Notre Dame a first down in BC territory with six minutes left in the half. The Eagles turned up the heat on the next series, and Clausen was forced to throw the ball away twice. Punter Geoff Price came onto the field on fourth down, but he could not handle a low snap without touching his knee to the ground.
The ball was blown dead at that spot, which turned out to be the Irish 41 instead of fifty yards downfield after a typical punt. Boston College accepted the invitation of a short field and scored with 1:32 left in the half for a 13-0 lead.
Clausen dug the hole deeper as the third quarter unfolded. The freshman threw a telegraphed interception on Notre Dame’s first offensive play after a strong opening series by the defense. Tyrone Pruitt returned the ball to the Irish 11, and Ryan hit Callender for the score despite an all-out blitz.
Coach Charlie Weis called upon Evan Sharpley on the next possession, and the junior responded by engineering a 79-yard scoring drive that ended on a 19 yard strike to Parris. Notre Dame caught a break on the ensuing series when a holding penalty negated a long gain by Callender on a screen pass. Ryan then made a colossal mistake by throwing into traffic on third down. Brian Smith picked off the errant pass and returned it 25 yards for a score. The Irish were suddenly down by only 20-14 with nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame could hardly contain itself after Smith’s score and were penalized 15 yards for an excessive celebration. This was cruel if not unusual punishment for a team that has had little to celebrate during this nightmarish season, and the Irish paid dearly for the rare pleasure.
Notre Dame was forced to kick off from its own 15 yard line, and the luckless Irish defense took the field with the Eagles already inside its territory at the 44. Ryan again took advantage of the opportunity by hitting Kevin Challenger for a touchdown with blitzers in his face. Even though there were still 22 minutes left in the game, this turn of events killed Notre Dame’s momentum.
The Irish defense continued to play valiantly despite the loss of Maurice Crum to injury in the game’s opening moments. They kept hope alive by forcing Ryan into failed third down passes on two consecutive possessions, but a promising drive by Notre Dame late in the period was curtailed by a familiar series of calamities: a holding penalty, a dropped pass, a sack and a missed 41-yard field goal.
Still, Sharpley and the Irish were not quite finished. The offense found itself on the BC 22 after another pass to Parris and a late hit on the Eagles. Sharpley scrambled and somehow found John Carlson on third down to set up a fourth down and one near the 12. Weis then called a play action pass that resulted in a completion to a wide-open Parris in the end zone. The only problem was a holding penalty on guard Mike Turkovich. This negated the score that would have brought Notre Dame to within 27-21 with six minutes remaining.
Instead, the Irish suffered their sixth loss in what was truly a winnable game. Sharpley performed reasonably well in relief for the second time in three weeks, and deserves the starting nod against USC. Parris caught four passes for 94 yards and a touchdown, but the running game was anemic once again with a paltry 27 net yards. James Aldridge did not finish the game after suffering an apparent ankle injury.
Besides Smith’s interception, Darrin Walls and Trevor Laws led the Irish defense in Crum’s absence. Linebacker Joe Brockington played well against the run, but he could not stop Callendar from catching ten passes for 91 yards. Ultimately, the combination of field position gifts from Notre Dame and clutch plays by Eagle seniors Ryan and Callender were just too much for the youthful Irish to overcome. Boston College also maintained possession for 39 minutes.
As this eight game death march nears an end, Notre Dame clearly has a number of problems that must be addressed if November is to provide a positive springboard for 2008. The offensive line is still unable to win the physical battles along the line of scrimmage. The offensive tackles do not exhibit the footwork necessary to pass block quicker defenders and the guards often allow blitzers to come through untouched. Finally, center John Sullivan continues to have problems with the shotgun snap.
Despite the improved play of Parris, wide receivers Golden Tate and Duval Kamara have disappeared since the Purdue game and David Grimes remains sidelined with an injury. Aldridge won the tailback spot, but the position is back in flux if his ankle injury is more than a tweak.
Special teams remain problematic. Price’s miscue was devastating, as was the poor kickoff after the celebration penalty. Whitaker’s missed field goal is a step backward after last week’s successes and the Irish return game remains a disappointment.
Here are the answers to key questions that helped to determine the outcome:
Will Notre Dame be able to hit Ryan in the pocket and pressure him into third down misses? The Irish did pressure Ryan and force incompletions on occasion, but he also made some clutch passes with defenders right on top of him.
Is Boston College really as good against the run as the statistics indicate? Yes, Notre Dame’s longest run was an eight yard scramble by Sharpley.
Will Callender maintain his five yard per carry average against the Irish? Not quite, but Whitworth’s 52 yard burst and Callender’s ten receptions were more important.
Can the Irish defense fire up the crowd and keep them in the game? Smith’s interception accomplished that feat, but the referees were not impressed.
Will Notre Dame be able to contain Jeff Smith? Jeff who? He did not play despite reports that he would be available.
Can Jimmy Clausen throw the ball downfield and avoid interceptions? Not this week, and consequently he won’t be throwing downfield next week, either.
Despite their 7-0 record, the Eagles did not appear to be a top five team by “normal” standards. There is nothing normal about this year’s college football season, however, and Notre Dame’s titanic struggle with basic competencies has given most opponents a free pass. Any hope that the offense will suddenly gel has been supplanted by a realization that the talent and experience level is not yet competitive, and confounding mistakes remain the only constant.