Untested

When the unbeaten Boston College Golden Eagles take the field at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, they’ll bring with them a 6-0 record and a #4 ranking that is one of the highest in the program’s less-than-illustrious history. But they’ll also be riding a winning streak compiled against the likes of Army, North Carolina State, Bowling Green, and Div. 1-AA UMass - a schedule tough enough to be ranked only 78th in the nation by Jeff Sagarin, compared to Notre Dame’s #3-ranked schedule.

Jason Kelly’s excellent column in today’s South Bend Tribune makes this point quite effectively:

The Eagles will be a case study on the subject of mirage vs. reality.

Other than a win on the road at Georgia Tech, Boston College got to 6-0 without the strain of travel or any opponent more imposing than a pop quiz (and Notre Dame makes seven, perhaps).

In other words, the “0″ rings a little hollow. Yell into it and the echo of vanquished opponents — Army-my-my, Bowling Green-een-een, UMass-mass-mass — is faint and uninspiring. Again, not that Notre Dame merits much more respect than that right now, but the circumstances reek of a set-up.

But do the 1-5 Irish really have a shot against a team that ranks eleventh in the nation in passing yardage and third against the run? Looking more closely over the numbers, here are some reasons for hope. (Note: all statistics via NCAA.org.)

Let’s start with the BC offense. While senior signal-caller Matt Ryan has led BC to 314.2 passing yards per game, good for eleventh in the nation as noted above, the Eagles’ running game is considerably less dynamic, as their 140.7 yds/game average ranks only 70th overall. Moreover, when we look at the quality of BC’s opponents at stopping the run, we see that only two of the six teams the Eagles have played have been at all stout in this respect so far this year: Georgia Tech ranks sixth in the nation with an average of 68.5 yards given up, and Wake Forest ranks 27th with an average of 111.0. (I’m discounting UMass, whose average of 90.8 looks imposing until you remember that they play in 1-AA, and have compiled that average against the likes of Holy Cross, Colgate, Towson, and Maine.) Against those two teams, the Eagles totaled only 146 yards on the ground, though to be fair they did gain 92 yards against Georgia Tech in week three, well above the Yellowjackets’ average. If we leave out the games against NC State (ranked 114th in the nation against the run) and Army (ranked 78th), in which BC totaled 433 yards, the Eagles have yet to put together a genuinely dominant game running the ball. To be sure, an Irish defense that gives up 189.8 yards a game on the ground, good only for 96th nationwide, might be a nice opponent to pick up a third such game, but the point at present is only that BC’s stats so far this season make it far from indubitable that this will happen.

The Eagles’ vaunted passing attack actually shows a similar trend: they’ve played against only two statistically solid pass defenses - NC State (192.2 yds/game, good for 25th nationally) and (again, Div. I-AA) UMass (214.4 yds/game) - and have struggled against both, totaling only 346 yards against the two of them. Meanwhile, while the Eagles did put up 371 passing yards against Army’s 40th-ranked pass defense (so ranked, of course, thanks in part to having played Akron, Rhode Island, Temple, and Tulane), their other three opponents respectively rank only 69th (Bowling Green), 71st (Georgia Tech), and 83rd (Wake Forest) nationally in pass defense. The fact that BC’s air attack has been really effective only against teams that have shown little ability to defend against the pass this season gives reason to hope that an ND squad that ranks fourth nationally in passing yardage given up and 22nd in pass efficiency defense might be able to slow the Eagles down.

Here are those numbers in a bit more detail (my apologies for not being as much of a tech-wiz as the show-offs at HLS):

When we look in some depth at the numbers put up by BC’s defense, we find a similar trend. As noted above, the Eagles’ run defense ranks third in the nation, giving up a scant 49.7 yards per game: but while they have clearly been able to hold teams below their season-long averages, they’ve faced only one opponent with a rushing game ranked higher than 71st nationally in Div. I-A. Moreover, the fact that BC has been able to get out to some nice leads against these inferior opponents has meant that they’ve simply faced fewer situations in which teams can run the ball against them: the Eagles have rushed the ball 208 times to their opponents’ 158, and have given up a less than dominant average of 2.9 yards per carry. This isn’t to say that BC’s run defense is weak: it clearly isn’t, and it will be a big challenge for an ND rushing attack that ranks last in the nation with only 33.0 yards per game. But it is to say that the Eagles’ schedule so far hasn’t faced them with much of a threat in this department: against Georgia Tech, which is the one team they’ve faced with a top-flight running game, BC was up 14-0 at the half and 21-0 going into the fourth quarter, and the Yellowjackets threw 39 passes and were able to run the ball only 28 times.

Meanwhile, the Eagles’ passing defense has looked downright bad so far this year, giving up 290.8 yards per game, good for only 110th in the nation. To some extent this might also be a product of teams’ having to throw the ball more once they fall behind, but every BC opponent except UMass (none of whose other opponents were I-A teams) has exceeded their season-long passing average against the Eagles, in many cases by large margins. On the season, BC’s opponents have completed 59.4% of their passes for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt, making for numbers that aren’t far behind Heisman candidate Ryan’s 62.7% completion rate and 7.3 yard average. Defending the pass is by far the Eagles’ biggest weakness: they gave up 368 passing yards to Wake Forest and 351 to NC State, and while they settled down a bit by giving up an average of only 209 passing yards per game against Georgia Tech, Army, and UMass in weeks 3-5, they followed that up by reverting to early-season form and allowing Bowling Green to throw for 401 yards against them last week. If the Irish offense can recapture the form that led to a 65.4% completion rate and 377 passing yards against a similarly mediocre Purdue pass defense, there’s no reason to think that ND won’t be able to move the ball downfield against BC.

Once again, here are those numbers in a bit more detail for the stat junkies:

Like I said when I offered a similar breakdown before the game against Purdue: I have plenty of doubts as to whether the Irish can win this one. But there’s clearly hope for an upset that would, as Kelly wonderfully puts it once again, “tear down one of the new McMansions dotting the college football landscape.”

Ohh, you mean THAT rivalry …

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