Oct. 22, 2004
by Alan Wasielewski
The only two Division I Catholic schools that compete in football meet on the gridiron this afternoon when Notre Dame (5-2) plays host to Boston College (4-2). Today’s contest is one many Irish observers, fans and players have circled on their calendar for a variety of reasons.
As the only two Catholic schools to compete in football, Notre Dame and Boston College will forever be linked together. Legendary Irish head coach Frank Leahy led BC for two seasons before returning to his alma mater and leading the Irish to six undefeated seasons and five national championships in the `40s.
Boston College has authored two of the biggest upsets in Notre Dame Stadium history, the 41-39 victory over #1 Notre Dame in 1993 and a 14-7 win over an undefeated and fourth-ranked Irish team in 2002.
The Eagles are looking to become just the seventh team to post at least four consecutive victories against the Irish with a win today, as Boston College has frustrated Notre Dame with a 21-17 victory in ’01, 14-7 win in ’02 and 27-25 win in ’03.
Since the 1998 meeting, the Notre Dame – Boston College game has been decided by an average of four points. This is one of those yearly contests that truly fits the cliché of – `you can throw out the records when these two teams meet.’
Perhaps no opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule has played a role in deciding the eventual outcome of the season as Boston College. Besides the aforementioned wins in 1993 and 2002, the BC game has an uncanny knack of popping up on Notre Dame’s schedule at crucial times in the season.
In 1997, a 52-20 blowout victory over Boston College by Bob Davie’s first Notre Dame team helped the Irish forget about a last-minute loss to USC the week before and began a five-game win streak to end the regular season (including a win over #11 LSU).
In 1998 a 31-26 victory over Boston College was highlighted by safety Deke Cooper stuffing BC’s Mike Cloud at the goal line on fourth down in the game’s final moments. The Irish pushed on to the Gator Bowl that season.
Back in 1999 a 31-29 win by Boston College was the third loss in what would become a four-game losing streak to end the year.
A solid 28-16 win over the Eagles in 2000 was a key part of Notre Dame’s seven-game win streak to end the year and earn the Irish a spot in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The 2001 meeting was truly a momentum breaker, as the Irish had rebounded from three losses to begin the season to defeat Pittsburgh, West Virginia and USC. After a 21-17 Eagles victory, the Irish fell to 3-4 in an eventual 5-6 season
Boston College also has thrown a wrench in the Tyrone Willingham era at Notre Dame. The Irish had their season derailed in 2002 with a 14-7 loss. Notre Dame had five turnovers and seven fumbles in the game (three of which were lost in Boston College territory).
The Eagles also handed Notre Dame a tough loss in 2003 when Sandro Sciortino kicked a last-second field goal after the Irish had rallied from an 18-point deficit.
A positive outcome against Boston College today could be another key step in Notre Dame’s systematic return to position itself for postseason play and national recognition. The Irish have won five of their first seven games for the fourth time since 1997 and returned to the national rankings (#24 AP, #25 ESPN/USA Today) after their 27-9 win over Navy last weekend.
After a rough 41-16 setback at the hands of Purdue three weeks ago, Notre Dame has responded with two character-building victories. The Irish rallied to defeat Stanford 23-15, then were forced to squeeze in preparation for Navy’s dangerous running attack in just three days.
One common thread has tied together Notre Dame’s performance over the last two games – the return to full time duty of senior running back Ryan Grant.
Grant scored twice against Stanford and enjoyed his most prolific game of the season at Navy last Saturday, rushing for 114 yards and two scores. The Nyack, N.Y., native is turning into a touchdown machine by scoring five times this season in just 54 carries.
What Notre Dame observers are witnessing over the last two games is what the Irish coaching staff was hoping to have all season – a healthy Grant to provide leadership and ability in the Irish backfield. Grant was having arguably the best preseason of any Irish player before his hamstring gave out at the end of a specatcular 40-yard run in practice.
Grant’s return to the lineup has taken the pressure off freshman running back Darius Walker (who has still been productive with 487 yards this season), allowed Marcus Wilson to spell both Walker and Grant (Walker’s 33-yard touchdown run was his first touch of the game vs. Navy) and given sophomore Travis Thomas a chance to put his fumble problems of the early season behind him.
A healthy Grant also has allowed quarterback Brady Quinn the ability to use play action passing to find open receivers and not carry the full burden of the offensive load. Quinn has pushed the number of different receivers who have caught a pass this season to an amazing 18 – including eight different receivers in his first eight throws against Navy.
Notre Dame’s defense should be holding their heads high today as well. After Purdue shredded the Irish defense for over 400 yards of offense three weeks ago, the unit has regrouped and shut down a prolific throwing offense (Stanford) and a respectable running game (Navy). The rushing defense’s numbers took a hit last week, but the Irish held Navy to 3.5 yards per carry on 61 attempts. The Midshipmen managed just 44 yards passing and did not complete a pass until late in the third quarter.
Typical of a defense against the option, Notre Dame’s middle linebackers starred last week. Brandon Hoyte posted a career-best 16 tackles (along with a sack and tackle for loss), while Mike Goolsby added 12 tackles and a sack. Another unsung player on Notre Dame’s front line, senior Greg Pauly, had a great game as well with nine tackles, one tackle for loss and a sack. Boston College will enter Notre Dame Stadium today attempting to put a tough 20-17 overtime loss at Pittsburgh behind them. The Eagles began the season with a three-game win streak over Ball State, Penn State and Connecticut before suffering their first loss of the season 17-14 at Wake Forest. Boston College rebounded from that setback with a 29-7 victory against Massachusetts before last weekend’s loss at Pitt.
Paul Peterson has been efficient as the Boston College quarterback this season, throwing for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns. His number one target is Grant Adams, who leads the team with 27 catches for 406 yards. On the ground, a number of different backs have seen time with the ball, including A.J.Brooks (55 carries, 326 yards), Andre Callender (59 carries, 309 yards) and L.V. Whitworth (54 carries, 246 yards).
It seems that each week Notre Dame has faced a game that will define the season. The Purdue loss derailed Irish momentum, but two consecutive victories have put Notre Dame back on track. There are never any easy games for the Fighting Irish, who according to the latest NCAA statistics have faced the toughest schedule in the country – and might end up with the toughest overall slate at the end of the year.
Notre Dame also will face a different offense for the third straight week. Stanford was a wide-open offensive team that concentrated on throwing the ball and spreading the field. Navy used the run as a first, second and even third option. Boston College likes to be balanced with an even distribution of run and pass. The Irish did catch a break this week, however, as the University is on Fall Break. There were no classes or exams to threaten Notre Dame’s concentration on its opponent this week.
The Notre Dame – Boston College rivalry has become even more heated over the last 11 years and today’s game will most likely end up as another hard fought battle, with the winner nabbing bragging rights for another year.