Friday, October 12, 2007

Rivalry? Who Said Anything about a Rivalry?

"I don't have a ring on my finger because of them. It feels great to beat a team which made such a big deal out of beating us."
-- Ryan Leahy, 1995, after Notre Dame's 20-10 victory over Boston College

The Holy War, the Battle for the Ireland Trophy, the Leahy Bowl (Ryan's grandpa Frank, whom you may be familiar with, was head coach at both institutions) - call Notre Dame vs. Boston College whatever you want. Is it a rivalry, a pissing contest, a staredown - who the hell knows? And more importantly, who the hell cares? It's a football game featuring two teams and two fanbases that really don't like each other. Just like Hatfield vs. McCoy, Busch vs. Miller, and AT&T vs. Sprint, there's plenty of immaturity and egotism on both sides to explain the mutual disdain. And, just like in those tit-for-tats, both sides are too proud to admit to reality, preferring instead a slouch back into the petty, "They had it coming!" defense as justification for their actions. Is Boston College/Notre Dame a rivalry? Probably not in the sense that Notre Dame/USC is a rivalry. Hasn't been around long enough, probably never will be. But it's at least a highly contentions, much-anticipated battle between two schools with enough pride to know few things would piss them off more than losing to the other.

With those histrionics out of the way, a sidenote: I hopped on over to Sherman Oaks tonight to catch Notre Dame High School's easy win over St. Francis. Knights QB Dayne Crist, a 5-star quarterback, is committed to the Fighting Irish, so needless to say I had something akin to a rooting interest. An imposing 6'5" and decked out in some familiar looking school colors, he cut a figure that was frighteningly similar to another #10 who wore blue and gold just a few months ago. Played like it too, with confidence and plenty of zip on the ball, and also reeled off a 55-yard run that reminded me an awful lot of that improvised scramble Brady went on last year in the Coliseum.

One of things that struck me about my first high school football game in at least six years was the size disparity. You figure that, even at a powerhouse program used to sending kids on to Division I-A (or whatever we're calling it these days), most of the team has no aspirations to play football beyond high school; they're just slower and smaller than what is required to go to the next level. Having said that, it was kind of shocking how small NDHS was. They had one player who would've made Sean Astin in Rudy look intimidating. And, in another pleasant surprise, size seemed to matter very little. Here was this guy, Rudy Jr, all 5'3" of him, (I'm guessing) flying all over the field as a defensive back, wideout, and punt returner. He probably played 3 full quarters without one break to the bench. Then there were a ton of players who were out there playing both ways, including the whole NDHS offensive line, which featured LB Anthony McDonald, another Fighting Irish commit who comes from a USC family. Met his father Mike at the game, a Trojan linebacker in the late '70s, who deadpanned that he'll let Anthony move back into the house once he changes his mind. Overall, I was impressed and at the same time a little spooked at how much of the University imagery gets ported down the high schools operated by the Holy Cross - not just the interlocking ND and the gold helmets, but the fight song, the alma mater, the halftime band fanfare (I half expected John Thompson to burst off the speakers at intermission), and the band's usage of awesomely bad classic rock material (Earth, Wind, & Fire was this week's artist).

All that out of the way, a preview of this week's titanic grudge match upcoming football contest...

Notre Dame vs. #4 Boston College
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN

Why Boston College Will Win

BC is breathing truly rare air by its program standards - the Eagles have never been ranked this high, ever, in any college football poll, not even when Patron Saint Flutie was tossing Hail Marys in the Orange Bowl and winning the Heisman. Ask fans of the Golden Eagles what got them to such lofty heights in 2007, and they'll tell you what the rest of the country is slowing figuring out: the current team is being led by the Second Coming. Senior QB Matt Ryan has quietly laid the groundwork for a Heisman bid of his own down the stretch, starting with consecutive appearances on national television; first the Irish, then #12 Virginia Tech. Both games are on the road and both give Ryan the kind of platform to show off his incredible decision-making (15 TDs vs. 5 interceptions along with 1857 yards) and considerable leadership skills for a team that is not lacking experience - 18 starters are back, in contrast to a Notre Dame team where 18 players have made their first career start this season.

We could spend a lot of time talking about the raw talent matchup, like we would if the opponent were a USC or an LSU, where the talent gap would figure to be a major hurdle for the Irish. In this game - and I DO NOT mean this as a slight to Boston College - the Irish match up just fine talent-wise. That's not just me pointing to recruiting rankings in an effort to mouth off, it's also me looking at the fact that five of the last six meetings in this series were decided by less than touchdown, half of them were decided by less than 3 points. That tells me two things - 1) the two teams were playing at break-even, if not in a situation where Notre Dame was underperforming and 2) close games were being one and lost on the when you have the ball at the BC 30 up by 3 with 9 minutes to go...and you punt. Poise and experience are a huge intangible of college athletics, and Boston College has the upper-hand in those categories. It's why they didn't wilt in the face of Georgia Tech's blitz down in Atlanta (not unlike a veteran Irish team that walked into Bobby Dodd last season). It's why they've been business-like and efficient in flicking aside NC State and their old coach, Tom O'Brien, as well as 2006 ACC Champ Wake Forest. It's why no sane Notre Dame fan should be expecting the Eagles to cough the game away like UCLA and its third-string walk-on QB did a week ago. And it's probably the biggest reason why BC fans should be confident in a victory.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Charlie Weis said it all in his assessment of the UCLA performance: it was an indication, more on defense than on offense but still indicative on both sides, of a team stocked with very inexperienced players finally learning and playing past their level of experience. Kerry Neal, Pat Kuntz, David Bruton, Darrin Walls, & Brian Smith were untested and virtually unknown, save perhaps for Bruton's heads-up performances on punt coverage the past two seasons (and also, perhaps, his cringe-worthy substitution for an injured Chinedum Ndukwe in last year's USC game). Now each is an important (and, far more critically, a playmaking) cog in the Notre Dame defense. Despite having the opportunity gift-wrapped for them by an inept UCLA coaching staff, the Irish defense still had to seize the opportunity to take over the game last Saturday. They've had a nasty run of making guys who are middle-of-the-road (Tyler Palko, Jeff Smoker, Kyle Orton, Curtis Painter, Joe Dailey, TC Ostrander) look like Heisman winners. So to see the Irish pounce on a woefully out-of-his-depth quarterback and come out with a +7 turnover ratio was a huge positive.

And, although the Irish cannot and should not expect the same kinds of mistakes against an extremely talented and confident senior, the defense has to key on forcing them. Pressure, pressure, pressure, and not necessarily by blitzing the house. Neal brings more speed to the edge of the linebacking corps, and if he and John Ryan can seal off BC's opportunities to gash a suspect run defense, Notre Dame's secondary just might get the chance to prove that #4 ranking of its own (in pass defense) isn't only the product of having a bad year versus the run. Forced or unforced, the Irish need a big momentum-changing play or two on defense to set up situations where Jimmy Clausen and the still-maligned offense can assert themselves and put points on the board. The Irish win if they once again seize control of the game on defense - the catch is that's going to be a lot harder this week than last.

The Prediction

If we played this game inside an X-BOX, where only the ratings and the guile of the controllers mattered, Notre Dame could probably win. Again, I am not trying to diss Boston College when I say that the Irish have just as much talent, and probably have more. This same group that goes into Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow will have three more cracks at the Eagles, each time knowing more about themselves and having the experience the BC starting lineups currently have in spades. I think the Irish do get a potential "game-changer" play on either defense or special teams, but on the whole they are still a team in the growing pains phase matched up against a very experienced squad. The point spread is 13.5; I figure BC pulls away late for the cover.

Boston College 35, Notre Dame 21.


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