Another opposing freshman quarterback causing problems. Another suffocatingly tight game that was in doubt down to the wire. But finally a win was in store for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their "Holy War" with Boston College. After six straight losses to the only other Catholic FBS team, it was the Irish defense, oddly enough, that forged the team on to victory, and broke another embarrassing streak that the team has amassed during their 15-year freefall from the ranks of the elite in college football.
And while Charlie Weis once again made some highly questionable decisions in the game and the defense looked over-matched for the bulk of the contest, the Irish found ways to make big plays in crucial situations. And although the team continues to lack optimal cohesiveness, they find themselves at 5-2 and maintaining a decent shot at a high-profile bowl game.
The offense was not spectacular for the Irish, at times looking reminiscent of the grind-it-out teams of years passed. Jimmy Clausen was solid, posting 246 yards and two touchdowns without a pick. His totals are respectable but he was unusually erratic at times, completing only 26 of 39 passes, and his mobility was visibly impaired due to his turf-toe injury that has been a continuous problem the past few weeks. Clausen wasn't at his best, but the banged up yet resourceful quarterback put in a gritty days work, and got the job done in the end despite his obvious physical handicaps.
Golden Tate was his usual phenomenal self, pulling in 11 balls (a career high) for 128 yards. He brought down both of Clausen's touchdowns including the game winner, a 36-yard gem with just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. Tate now has 52 receptions for 847 yards (third in the nation) and eight touchdowns (second) on the season. It is time to include his straight-from-central-casting name — along with that of Clausen — in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
But even with all the production out of Tate, on many occasions Weis took to a ball control approach (again using the Wildcat) in his play calling, giving Armando Allen Jr. 21 carries with which he gained 98 yards. The Irish also saw five other players carry a combined total of 12 times (33 of 72 plays). Allen had some nice looking runs in the game but the team continues to lack the dynamic, pass-catching tailback that such a high-octane spread offense needs. Promising sophomore Jonas Gray did get a carry at the end of the game after Robert Hughes was sidelined with an injury. Gray is a quality back with good size and speed that may be able to provide an impact at some point this season if Allen and/or Hughes continue(s) to turn in mediocre performances or injury forces him into action.
The most often cited deficiency in the Notre Dame squad this season is their defense whose struggles have become the main on the field story (as opposed to the continuing saga of Charlie Weis' off the field or sideline-centric, job-security issue). And facing 25-year-old ex-minor league pitcher freshman Eagles quarterback Dave Shinskie, the unit struggled once again. It was bend but don't break all afternoon, with the Boston College signal caller nearly matching the production of the heralded Clausen, putting up 279 yards passing, 19 yards rushing and a passing TD. But in addition to those positives he had three very big negatives in the form of interceptions, the last of which ended the game and Boston College's winning streak in the vaunted Holy War.
The true "savior" on the field that is overlooked by Touchdown Jesus on the wind burned Saturday afternoon was senior safety Kyle McCarthy. All season, the 23-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio has been a bright spot in an inconsistent secondary very prone to surrendering the big play. His season totals of 47 tackles and five interceptions show his skill, with five of those tackles and two of the picks occurring in the BC game on Saturday. The kid has come up big all season but it was with 1:38 left in the 4th quarter of this seesaw tug of war that McCarthy earned his "honorary battle medal" as the figurative MVP of this particular episodic crusade against the Eagles in the Holy War.
With 3:22 left in the game Boston College found itself down only four points despite four turnovers by the Eagles to none by the Fighting Irish. While the small lead by Notre Dame was due in some part to Charlie Weis' perplexing decision at the beginning of the fourth quarter to go for it — ultimately unsuccessfully — on 4th and 1 on the one yard line with his team down only three (16-13), much of the blame rests on Clausen's inability to establish an offensive flow, especially in the disastrous first half.
Shinskie took his offense on a drive that brought the Eagles all the way to Notre Dame's doorstep (or at least the beginning of their driveway) at the 27 yard line. That was when, with 1:38 left in the game, McCarthy finally put an end to the drive, the game, and another episode of the chaos that has surrounded the Irish seemingly every weekend this season (their last give games had been decided in the last minute entering the contest again Boston College which was secured just slightly earlier).
Again Notre Dame failed in key situations on both sides of the ball. And again Charlie Weis' playing calling was suspect and almost costly at times (while at other times undeniably creative, innovative, and successful). But finding their "internal fire" in the 4th quarter of a game in which the Irish had largely looked lethargic for its majority, Notre Dame finally disposed of one their most hated rivals and fellow Catholic brethren, keeping their season and bowl aspirations alive in the process.