The Notre Dame Fighting Irish avoided a 1993 repeat on Saturday by defeating Phil Jurkovec and the Boston College Eagles 45-31. The offense hummed in the win despite three turnovers, and will now get two weeks to prepare for a critical test against Sam Howell and UNC. The Irish will want to be better defensively to beat UNC, but if Ian Book continues to play like this it is going to be tough for anyone to beat them. For a primer on the analytics used in this article please follow this link to definitions and context for the statistics used.
The Irish shot themselves in the foot early with a Chris Tyree fumble but recovered as the first half went on to take a commanding lead into the second half. The Eagles had an opportunity to make things interesting in the third quarter but squandered it by turning the ball over on downs in Irish territory. The fourth quarter was completely stress free, a welcome difference from last week.
Ian Book was as good or better than he was against Clemson in this game. Book averaged 0.31 EPA/dropback on a day when two of his passes were caught and fumbled (which count against his passing EPA). This can be seen in his deep throwing statistics. His two deep throws on the day were a perfect twenty-seven yard pass that Lawrence Keys had ripped away from him, and a twenty-four yard strike completed to Skowronek (technically successful since a first down was gained) which he subsequently fumbled for -3.9 EPA. With that play and the Kyren Williams fumble filtered out, Book’s passing EPA shoots up to 0.63, an elite day unlike anything we have ever seen from him. Book is at another level right now, and if they handed out a Heisman trophy for just weeks nine and ten he would be taking it home.
Book generated this production mostly through the usual suspects of Javon McKinley, Ben Skowronek, and Avery Davis. Skowronek was so good in this game that even with the fumble he was still ultra efficient. Javon McKinley ended up running the shorter routes in this game instead of Davis who has filled this role in the past, and it has become clear that the pair are both versatile enough to run the entire route tree. While it was great to see the three of them continue to flourish, Mayer and Tremble only receiving two targets is not good asset management. It’s hard to complain about what was essentially a perfect day passing outside the fumbles, but we would like to see the pair of star tight ends remain involved. However, with five capable pass catchers there are going to be games where one or two players don’t have a seat at the table.
Passing continues to be more efficient than running for Notre Dame, although C’Bo Flemister did his best to change that. Flemister passed both the eye test and analytics test Saturday, running hard for extra yards and a stellar 0.56 EPA/play. Both Tyree and Williams fumbled in this one, but Flemister showed his steady hand and reliable nature between the tackles. Flemister picked up an injury late that is not believed to be serious, so it would be great to see him continue to stay on the field. Williams and Tyree were below average in this game, especially Tyree whose fumble cost the Irish -5.6 Expected Points. The Irish run game continues to be fine but is struggling to live up to early expectations, and it will become even more difficult with starting center Jarrett Patterson now out for the year with a foot injury.
It is also worth noting the Irish took their foot off the gas in this game. They ran the ball a ton in the second half, calling the dogs off and taking the ball out of Ian Book’s hands as they built a large lead. The Irish could have reached sixty or even seventy if they did not fumble or wanted to run up the score, but were content to run out the clock, only throwing on 7 of 32 second half snaps.
The sample sizes from game to game are extremely small, but it is worth noting that motion at the snap has been the most efficient play type in two straight games, while plays without motion have seen a marked decrease in effectiveness. More motion please!
Deep and intermediate passing kept Boston College in this game. The Notre Dame pass defense was sharp on passes near or behind the line of scrimmage, which kept Phil Jurkovec’s drop back EPA/play to a modest 0.04 on a night where he was connecting on intermediate passes. His throwing EPA was actually even worse at -0.1, with the remainder of his EPA gains coming due to his prowess scrambling. Jurkovec exposed one of the Irish defense’s weaknesses here, getting loose on the ground for 0.93 EPA/rush on designed runs outside his efficiency scrambling. Despite his excellence on intermediate balls he wasn’t exceptional throwing deep, only averaging 0.38 EPA on throws over 20 yards downfield (average is around 0.3). Notre Dame was able hold Jurkovec to an EPA/play figure below his season average, but the Irish may need to be better against the deep ball against Sam Howell in two weeks to keep the Tar Heels offense from moving. Jurkovec really struggled with accuracy in this one while Howell is a much better and more dangerous quarterback.
The Eagles got extremely little from Zay Flowers, the second straight week the Irish have turned in an excellent performance against their opponent’s preferred target. Tight end Hunter Long and wide receivers Jaelen Gill and CJ Lewis (our player to watch in the preview) did most of the damage. All three had double-digit aDOTs and allowed Jurkovec to throw deep as he likes to do, especially against this defense.
As projected, the Eagles struggled to rush against the Irish defense, although they salvaged a better day than I would have expected with a solid second half. David Bailey ran for a 0.08 EPA/play figure that was way up from his season average of -0.31 EPA/play coming in. Jurkovec was also dangerous on the ground, getting Boston College’s run EPA above 0 for the second half. Overall the Eagles ran for -0.06 EPA/Play as Notre Dame continued to dominate against the run.
For the second straight week the Irish were torched by play action. This was understandable against Clemson, but is now a trend to watch for moving forward as the Irish face an elite pass offense in Chapel Hill that will punish them for selling out too aggressively against the run. Notre Dame should be conceding the run more against teams that can really threaten them downfield and more help over the top. It didn’t burn them against Clemson because they only went deep 4 times, but Howell and Trevor Lawrence figure to do go deep early and often.
The Eagles put up 31 points, but they had three drives start beyond their own forty, two drives start in Irish territory, and one particularly egregious fumble set them up at the Irish nineteen yard line (where the defense forced a three and out and a field goal). Deep balls and running quarterbacks are still concerns, but similar to Florida State the thirty-one points should not be seen as a disaster. The Irish defense was good, although they may need to be better in two weeks in Chapel Hill.