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Adams: Why senior day win over Boston College was infuriating

| Sunday, November 24, 2019

It’s not that the offense was incredibly meandering to start the game, putting up only 16 points and needing a questionable defensive pass interference with six seconds remaining to put them in range of their third field goal of the first half. It’s not redshirt freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s apparent obsession with running the ball and refusing to work on his in-game passing. It’s not even the special ’88 throwback uniforms (that looked a lot like the normal uniforms).

What was infuriating about the Boston College game is how it served as yet another reminder of the inconsistency of this Notre Dame team, inconsistency that has permeated its play for virtually the entire 2019 season.

Starting with the season opener at Louisville, the Irish struggled to stop the Cardinals’ run game and struggled with their own passing game, but first-year Louisville coach Scott Satterfield was junking up the game plan. Also, junior running back Jafar Armstrong was hurt on the opening drive and figured to be a fixture of the offensive attack, so I’ll give them a pass for working through the kinks in the season opener.

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
Irish junior running back Tony Jones Jr. breaks a tackle during Notre Dame’s 40-7 victory over Boston College on Nov. 23 at Notre Dame Stadium.

However, here’s where I start getting frustrated. You dominate New Mexico 66-14, and even Jurkovec and freshman quarterback Brandon Clarke have their own touchdown drives. At the same time, you go 1-10 on third down but counterintuitively rely on shear dominance (something the Irish have not been known for recently) to go 5-5 on fourth down. Plus, senior quarterback Ian Book’s stat line reads 360 passing yards and five touchdowns, but 178 of those yards and three of those touchdowns come on a short crossing route by senior receiver Javon McKinley that ended up going for 65 yards and two “passes” on jet sweeps to junior running back Avery Davis and graduate student receiver Chris Finke.

Against Georgia, your run game is completely non-existent, and as such you pass four times on the goal line to score a touchdown, a touchdown you only scored because of a muffed punt. You then proceed to hold the Bulldogs to three field goals and score on a hurry-up offense drive (where was that the previous 53 minutes?) and get a three-and-out and a shanked punt in your favor. But then, after getting our hopes up, your offensive line, which, although mistake-prone, hadn’t given up a sack all game, lets the pass rush straight through and forces Book to send a Hail Mary into double coverage that’s easily batted down to seal the 23-17 loss.

Against Virginia, while understandably suffering from a bit of a hangover, you get outscored 17-14 in the first half, then give up an onside kick to start the second half. However, your pass rush, which had been virtually nonexistent compared to its understandably high expectations, finally steps up and records eight sacks and forces three fumbles, one of which is returned for a touchdown and another nearly scores as well. What’s more, that nonexistent ground game a week prior records 157 yards and all four offensive touchdowns.

You then appropriately dominate Bowling Green 52-0 by throwing for 340 yards (and without any of those touch “passes” like against New Mexico), and you follow that up by yet again dominating on that ground against USC with 308 rushing yards. Where was that against Georgia?

But what’s worse is that you’re up on the Trojans 17-3 at the half and have an opportunity to blow it open to start the second half by FINALLY returning a kickoff for a touchdown, then junior receiver Michael Young, who is an absolute speedster, has nothing but open field in front of him and inexplicably fumbles the football. You then edge out your rival 30-27 by recovering an onside kick attempt by USC which should have been re-kicked because head coach Brian Kelly was eight yards out on the field directing the special teams.

Now we get to the worst of the worst. You have not one but TWO weeks to prepare for a game against rival Michigan in the Big House with the Wolverines coming in desperate after losing to Penn State the week prior and with their head coach’s seat warming up. It is a monsoon, but you complete some difficult passes to your receivers, yet you persist with the strategy of running the ball directly into a packed defensive front and make the 308 yards the previous week look like a fluke by going for only 47 in Ann Arbor.

Your defense, which has been the bright spot of the season thanks to consistently making perfect second-half adjustments, reaches its breaking point and surrenders 45 points. Plus the surprisingly reliable special teams unit bafflingly fumbles a blocked punt.

Your defense responds the following week by holding the Virginia Tech offense in check, but your offense puts you in a hole by allowing a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Even so, Book answers the criticism he’s been barraged with by leading a game-winning drive featuring not one but TWO fourth-down conversions.

Now we get to the nitty gritty of my frustration. You’ve finally put it together. You dominate Duke 38-7 and dismantle a quality Navy team 52-20, the latter of which saw four forced fumbles against a characteristically disciplined armed forces school. Plus, Finke finally steps up against the Blue Devils after having a lackluster year and Book finally takes deep shots against Navy after being conservative all year. Plus, Book used first round-caliber receiver Chase Claypool as the matchup nightmare he is with four touchdown passes to him against the Midshipmen.

Then, on senior day against Boston College, we regress once more. There was a flurry of false start penalties, reminiscent of the aforementioned debacle at Georgia that featured the offensive line getting flagged six times for premature starts. After starting slow, probably stemming from a predictable senior day hangover of emotions, your defense yet again has to jumpstart your scoring.

It takes a fumble recovery by junior linebacker Drew White and an interception by freshman safety and phenom Kyle Hamilton to give you two short-field touchdown drives, sandwiched around a 61-yard touchdown run by Braden Lenzy. Not so coincidentally given Lenzy’s status as an Oregon track star, that jet sweep was reminiscent of the one he took a 51-yard touchdown against USC, but you couldn’t pull that out earlier in the year against Georgia?

To be clear, I’m thrilled Notre Dame dominated Boston College, as they should have. It’s great that they held a vaunted Eagles run game featuring junior back A.J. Dillon, the third-leading rusher in the FBS, to far fewer rushing yards (128) than their season average (282.2). That effort is incredibly reassuring considering sophomore and freshman backup interior defensive linemen Jayson Ademilola and Jacob Lacey were already banged up, senior defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara were out for the year and senior defensive end Khalid Kareem and junior interior lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa both suffered in-game injuries.

However, once again the offense left a lot to be desired, with Book leading the Irish in rushing yards for the fourth-straight game. Given that Book is not a typical dual-threat quarterback, that’s not a reassuring stat. Granted, the starting right side of the offensive line is out for the season with injuries, but it’s still aggravating that the ground game seemed to have an intermittent appreciable gain scattered amongst negative yardage run stuffs and minute gains of one to three yards.

Still, Notre Dame just wrapped up their second-straight season with a perfect home record, going 7-0 this season, and they still haven’t lost to an unranked team since 2016. That’s the second-longest streak in the country behind Alabama, with whom the Irish clearly aren’t in the same conversation since the Tide haven’t fallen to an unranked foe since 2007. That’s why the Boston College game shows just how dumbfounding and infuriating this Notre Dame team is. When you look at their season in the grand scheme of things, they are exceedingly average by their standards.

There were such high expectations for Ian Book and the offense and such low expectations for the run defense and special teams coming into 2019, but both have since been proven faulty. Because of this, the Irish are just where most predicted they would be, on the verge of 10-2 with losses to Georgia and Michigan, but the expected margins of defeat for each game were reversed.

I guess what I’m saying is that I just don’t know what I’m going to get from Notre Dame week-to-week. This team appears to be full of contradictions. It feels like a different version of the Irish shows up every time I think I’ve got them figured out. But, what though the odds, great or small, Notre Dame has somehow found a way to win over all (at home). If only they could figure out how to beat a marquee opponent.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden