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Notre Dame Football Analytics Preview: Boston College Eagles

Analytics to Assure You It’s Not 1993

Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images

A week after the greatest win of the Brian Kelly era the Notre Dame Fighting Irish travel to Chestnut Hill to take on the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium. Former Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec will soon take the field against the Irish, trying to lead Boston College to an upset win over his former team. Many have pointed out the last time Notre Dame took down a number one ranked opponent was in 1993, and that team faltered against these same Eagles the next week. “Same Eagles” in the sense that it’s the same college, not the same in the sense that Bill Clinton was president then, Brian Kelly was the head coach at Grand Valley State then, and I was four years from being born then (seriously people, enough with the 1993 game). For any new fans hopping on the bandwagon after the Clemson game, here is a link to an analytics primer for you to get the most of this analytics preview.

Notre Dame Defense Versus Boston College Offense

Phil Jurkovec has been solid for the Eagles all season, carrying their offense and accounting for 74.1% of their offensive yards so far (for reference, Ian Book accounts for 57.8% of Notre Dame’s yards because Notre Dame’s running backs have far out gained Boston College’s). Jurkovec has been able to do this because he plays in one of the most pass happy systems in the FBS. The Eagles have the 36th highest pass rate in the country, including the 33rd highest on first and second down. Jurkovec has been relatively efficient handling this massive workload at 0.15 EPA/play throwing and 0.3 EPA/play rushing. Despite these efficiency numbers Jurkovec has not been particularly accurate this year. His adjusted completion percentage (which adds dropped passes to catches and removes throwaways and spikes) is an average to mediocre 70th in the country, and he’ll need to be more precise than this to lead the offense against the Irish.

Jurkovec’s main weapons are wide receiver Zay Flowers and tight end Hunter Long. Flowers comes into this game with a ton of hype, but does not have the efficiency numbers to back it up. Flowers is averaging 0.16 EPA/target and only hauling in 50% of his targets. Flowers will continue to get work, but keep an eye out for CJ Lewis. He only has twenty targets, but he has averaged 1.61 EPA/play on them, third in the entire nation. When Jurkovec goes deep to Lewis good things happen for the Eagles, which Irish fans will need to watch out for after their deep passing defense was torched yet again last weekend. The Eagles would be wise to try to get Lewis involved down the field and let Jurkovec throw early and often because of Notre Dame’s continued struggles against deep balls.

David Bailey and Travis Levy head up the Eagles backfield, averaging -0.06 and -0.31 EPA/play respectively, playing for an Eagles squad that is averaging -0.11 EPA/rush overall. The Eagles have been poor rushing the football all season, making this a game where it would be great to see Notre Dame clamp down on the deep ball. We have been sounding the alarm on the potential for problems with Notre Dame’s deep passing defense all season, and those problems came to the forefront last week when DJ Uiagelelei burned the Irish for 1.48 EPA/play on passes traveling over twenty air yards. The Irish need to figure this out, and even if it means conceding the run a bit to provide some extra help over the top, the Irish should be daring Boston College to beat them with their running backs. Against Clemson and Travis Etienne this strategy would have made less sense, but it’s time to see what kind of defenses can work against deep passing going forward, even if it means providing Boston College’s run game a bit of space.

Notre Dame Offense Versus Boston College Defense

Boston College is stronger on offense than defense, sporting below average run and pass defense by EPA/play. We have our eyes far more on the scheme that Boston College will come out with than any specific players. Ever since Louisville held Notre Dame to 12 points by bringing pressure, that’s how teams have played against Notre Dame. Louisville generated three sacks with Ian Book only completing 1 of 3 throws for 7 yards on plays they blitzed. Other teams have replicated this strategy since with much less success. Ian Book has thrown for 9.7 Yards/Attempt, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions on 41 dropbacks against the blitz in the three games since Louisville, only taking 4 sacks in the process.

This constant blitzing has dampened Kyren Williams and the Irish rush game. The Irish have rushed for negative EPA in the three games since Louisville, and passing has been more efficient than running in every game since Florida State. If Boston College brings pressure, the Irish need to adjust away from leaning on the run game so heavily and let Book have even more responsibility. Book continues to improve as the season goes on, and is coming off of the best game of his career according to Pro Football Focus (90.7 PFF Passing Grade). Expect Book to attack over the top against Eagle blitzes after a week where he threw nine deep passes, his most in a game by far this season. If they play a more conservative defense to prevent this, then the dominant run game Irish fans saw before Louisville could be re-ignited behind the highest graded run-block unit in the country, according to PFF.

Prediction

Boston College’s defense will not be able to hang with Notre Dame’s offense and create enough stops to win. Ian Book is playing too well to be contained by an Eagles team that is so susceptible to passing, and Boston College’s one dimensional offense is likely not going to move the ball. The only fear would be if Jurkovec is able to connect on several deep passes during the game and create explosive plays that hang quick points on the board. We expect Clark Lea’s game plan to provide extra help deep and make the Eagles win on the ground and at the short and intermediate levels, which will be extremely difficult for them. Do not tell me about 1993, because the Irish are taking care of business this Saturday, 41-17.