Notre Dame rides strong second half to top Boston College
Daniel O'Boyle | Saturday, September 16, 2017
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — In the two hours and 15 minutes following Notre Dame and Boston College’s 3:40 p.m. kickoff, there were 89 tweets including the name, “Ian Book.” Almost all were asking to see the sophomore quarterback appear for the Irish over junior Brandon Wimbush.
By the end of the game, Notre Dame fans saw Book.
Or they would have, had ESPN not switched over to Davis Wade Stadium, where Mississippi State was playing LSU.
The network switched over for the same reason Book played: The Irish (2-1) had turned a tight contest with the Eagles (1-2, 0-1 ACC) into a comfortable victory, coming out 49-20 victors in the end.
How did the Irish get there from holding a 14-13 lead midway through the third quarter, with the Eagles narrowly outside field-goal range?
After the Irish went three-and-out on three called passes for their opening possession, the Eagles took over from their own 48-yard line and drove deep into Irish territory before junior kicker Colton Lichtenberg hit a 38-yard field goal.
On the next possession, junior running back Josh Adams broke free down the middle of the field, and though he was caught inside the 5-yard line, Wimbush kept the ball on an option play and ran into the endzone untouched. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he knew the Eagles linebackers liked to get into the backfield, so the right play had a chance to turn into a major gain.
“They’re a very aggressive group — they’re downhill linebackers, and we wanted to create a little bit of misdirection and pull,” Kelly said of the Eagles’ defense. “That’s a play that we use against certain defenses that have that very aggressive to the line of scrimmage [approach].”
On the opening play of the second quarter, Eagles junior running back Jon Hilliman broke four tackles on a 29-yard run down the right sideline, then Eagles redshirt-freshman quarterback Anthony Brown found graduate student wide receiver Charlie Callinan streaking down the middle of the field for a 22-yard score.
The Irish drove the ball into Eagles territory, but Wimbush’s fourth-down scramble from the 35-yard line was stopped a yard short, giving the Eagles the ball back with a chance to extend their lead.
Callinan and Hilliman again moved the ball into the Irish half, but the Eagles’ drive stalled at the Irish 44-yard line. When the Eagles got the ball back again, they again moved the ball to the halfway line, but the Irish forced another punt. With the Eagles reaching midfield 11 times in total but failing to score points on the majority of those occasions, Kelly said he was impressed with his team’s third-down defense.
“Third down is an interesting down,” Kelly said. “One of the areas that we’ve been really good is that we’ve been able to get some pressure on the quarterback on third down, and they’ve been forced to get the ball up quick. I think our pass rush is better, and we’ve tackled better on third down.”
With the Irish starting on their own 8-yard line a few drives later, Adams took the ball to the 19-yard line before bursting through a gaping hole for another 64 yards. Wimbush was stopped at the 1-yard line later in the drive, but barely punched the ball in on the following third-and-one.
After another Eagles punt, the Irish had a chance to extend the score in the final minutes of the half, but Wimbush’s throw was too high for junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who tipped the ball into the hands of Boston College junior safety Lukas Denis. Kelly said he was disappointed at halftime, but asked his highly-rated offensive line to make the difference in the second half.
“We didn’t make a lot of plays in the first half, and we came in at halftime and went up to the offensive line and said, ‘Look, we need you to take over this football game, you’re our veteran group,’” Kelly said.
After a first-down pass to junior tight end Alize Mack early in the third quarter, Wimbush fumbled a handoff to Adams, giving the Eagles possession in the Irish half. Boston College couldn’t turn the possession into a touchdown, but this time could turn it into points, making the game 14-13 with a Lichtenberg field goal.
The Eagles entered Irish territory yet again on their next offensive possessions, but this time were stopped on fourth-and-one as Hilliman’s rush was stuffed at the line by senior linebacker Nyles Morgan and junior linebacker Te’von Coney. Kelly said the stop, with the ball at the Irish 30 and the game at 14-13, was the game’s turning point.
“Our defense really ignited us with a fourth-down stop, got some energy and I think when you make plays, obviously that creates an energy, and we were able to score.” Kelly said. “I thought that was a pretty big turning point in the second half.”
This time, it was Wimbush who gave the Irish the big play they needed, breaking out for a 46-yard run inside the Eagles’ 10-yard line before sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr punched in a one-yard score.
The Irish had a chance to extend their lead after junior cornerback Shaun Crawford picked off a deep pass by Brown. Crawford said a combination of his recognition of plays and his teammates’ assistance were to thank for the turnover.
“It was actually some teammates. They were yelling, ‘Ball!’” Crawford said. “And I knew whenever they run that route, they always want to take that shot. … Georgia threw that same route at me, Temple threw that same route at me as well. I just knew that was a shot they were looking for, and I just got help from my teammates yelling, ‘Ball!’”
Another long run from Adams and a 33-yard pass from Wimbush to graduate student tight end Durham Smythe put the Irish deep in the Eagles’ half again, where another Wimbush keeper gave him his third score of the day and the Irish a 15-point lead.
Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, that became a 22-point lead, as Wimbush took off on another option play, cutting across the field to make it into the end zone untouched again for a 65-yard score.
“It feels awesome,” Wimbush said of breaking off big runs. “The offensive line did a hell of a job again and opened up lanes for myself, Josh Adams, [junior running back] Dexter [Williams] and Tony, and even [sophomore running back] Deon [McIntosh], who got in there at the end and got a couple yards there. But when you’re running in the open field, it feels great to open up a little bit.”
The Irish gave up a second touchdown on another Brown pass to Callinan, who was ruled to have completed the process of the catch after a review. And when the Irish returned the ball to the Eagles down 15, it appeared Boston College had a foothold back in the game. However, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara forced a fumble, which was recovered by Crawford, to give the Irish the chance to put the game away.
Wimbush almost delivered on the first play, but he was ruled out of bounds before diving to the pylon. However, it only took one more play for the Irish to get the touchdown, as Williams found the end zone.
With the Irish ahead by 22 points in the fourth quarter, Book and the remaining backups were able to take over. Williams added another score to give the Irish a 49-20 victory behind a 35-10 second half. The Irish rushed for 515 yards, the most since they ran for 597 against Navy in 1969.
Wimbush said the victory, on the road against a team known for its defensive prowess, was a major achievement for Notre Dame.
“They have a great defense and to beat a Power-5 team like that on the road was a real good accomplishment for this team, the 2017 team,” he said.