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Notre Dame Defense Attempts To Take Higher Steps

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Notre Dame's defense has performed respectably in the first two games, but has a chance to dominate at Boston College.
Photo by Bill Panzica

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Prior to the start of the 2017 season, the Notre Dame-Boston College contest appeared like it would be a matchup between the Eagles’ albatross (offense) against the Fighting Irish bane (defense).

Entering this Saturday, the Boston College offense has held up its end of the deal. After mucking their way through a 23-20 win over a Northern Illinois team that was 5-7 last year, the Eagles’ struggles on that side of the ball continued last week with the 34-10 loss to Wake Forest while committing four turnovers — and that was with current Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko not even working for the Demon Deacons anymore.

Meanwhile, Elko’s Irish defense has, at least through the opening two games, displayed sound fundamentals combined with tenacity and even some playmaking skills. There is no declaration of having arrived — let’s not forget new 2014 Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had one of the nation’s top defenses after his first five games, highlighted by a shutout of Michigan — but the vibe and energy is conspicuous.

“Defense is by and large about a confidence and a belief,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “Our players believe in what we're doing defensively, have got great confidence in the players around them, that they're going to do their job. So when you have that dynamic going forward, it certainly is going to allow you to continue to grow as a defense.”

The opportunity to show even more will be provided with this year’s opening road contest at Boston College.

Since the start of his college coaching career at Syracuse in 1995, Eagles head coach Steve Addazio has remained strictly on offense, including his three-year stint under Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie as the tackles/tight end and special teams coach from 1999-2001.

During that time, Addazio also became acquainted with Fighting Irish receivers coach Urban Meyer — who would hire him on his staff at Florida in 2005, where he became part of national titles in 2006 and 2008, the latter as assistant head coach and offensive line coach, before later also becoming the coordinator.

Thus, it’s been somewhat of a surprise that with such an extensive and impressive background on that side of the ball, Addazio’s albatross has been the offense at Boston College, particularly the past two seasons.

During 7‑6 campaigns his first two years in 2013-14 (including 4‑4 both times in the ACC), the Eagles offense was respectable, averaging 27.0 points per game in league play his first season and 23.0 his second, not including a 31‑30 bowl loss to Penn State.

His third year in 2015 resulted in the 0-8 league ledger and the beyond anemic 9.1 scoring average.

Last year, the Eagles bounced back to post their third 7-6 mark in his four seasons at Chestnut Hill, Mass., highlighted by a 36-30 win over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl Dec. 26. BC’s best wins came at North Carolina State (21-14) and versus Wake Forest (17-14) to finish 2-6 in the ACC.

However, against the top competition in the league, Boston College was badly outclassed, getting outscored 202-14 by national champ Clemson (56-10) and Louisville (52-7) at home, and also at Virginia Tech (49-0) and Florida State (45-7).

A three-game winning streak to cap last season provided some momentum, but the reality at BC is while it can schedule enough non-conference wins such as Wagner, Buffalo, UMass and UConn to get to .500 and receive a bowl bid, the team was non-competitive against the upper echelon of the league.

Last week’s thrashing at the hands of Wake Forest was a poor sign for the future of the operation and Addazio’s tenure.

The identity of the program used to be much like Wisconsin’s — physical offensive lines leading a power-based ground attack. That has not been the case this season as the top two rushers are Jon Hillman, whose 33 carries have averaged only 2.5 yards, and freshman A.J. Dillon, whose 20 carries have netted 63 yards, or a 3.2 average per carry.

At quarterback, redshirt freshman Anthony Brown (6-1, 210) has averaged only 4.37 yards on 71 pass attempts while trying to become a dual threat in the more up-tempo attack. Plus, he has four interceptions compared to three TDs.

Senior Darius Wade (6-0, 215) also has seen some action, completing seven of his 12 attempts, but again for only 44 yards. Kelly said the Irish are preparing to face both, but doesn’t see an appreciable difference in the approach with either.

“The offense is going to be pretty much what it is,” Kelly said. “There seems to be much more of a commitment to the freshman quarterback, but we'll see. We'll prepare for both. We'll prepare for even some wildcat, some things we haven't seen before. I think you always have to do that.”

The recruiting the past couple of years has not been good enough, especially on offense, to get Boston College to an appreciably higher level. The team’s recruiting class rankings by Rivals from 2013-17 were: No. 89 (2013), No. 43 (2014), No. 49 (2015), No. 82 (2016) and No. 67 (2017).

The lone four-star prospect signed this past February was the aforementioned Dillon, the grandson of 1969‑71 Notre Dame College Football Hall of Fame receiver Thom Gatewood. Dillon was at Notre Dame’s 2016 Irish Invasion as well. Among the other 20 players signed, 10 were listed with three stars and 10 others with two.

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