Finishing long drives with a field goal or without a score had held back Notre Dame’s offense all season.
The No. 2 Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) found an answer to their red-zone troubles on Saturday, though, while downing Boston College (5-4, 4-4) at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Wide receiver Ben Skowronek caught three touchdowns while Notre Dame's offense was in the red zone (inside the opposing 20-yard line). Skowronek finished with a team-high five receptions for 63 receiving yards.
The Irish entered the matchup tied for No. 88 nationally in red-zone efficiency (76.9), scoring 30 times on 39 opportunities, including eight field goals. Against Clemson last week, they lost a fumble in the red zone and settled for four field goals.
It’s only fitting that Skowronek helped cure Notre Dame’s red-zone woes, at least for one game.
Irish quarterback Ian Book had long boasted about his relationship with Skowronek. Their bond dates back to last December, when Skowronek pursued a graduate transfer from Northwestern and stayed with Book during his recruiting visit to Notre Dame. During the offseason, they worked out together for a couple weeks in California.
The chemistry between those two looked more apparent than ever on Saturday.
“He is one of my best friends. But he’s someone on the field once we pass those white lines that I trust, especially just to go up there and get it,” Book said. “He’s got strong hands, faster than people think and he can go up there and get it, too. He can jump high. So it’s awesome to have out there. I just feel comfortable with him, and I’m glad his hard work is paying off. There is more to come from him for sure.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Skowronek hauled in a 50-50 ball on two of his touchdowns. Both receptions required Skowronek to leap into the air and secure the football while a defender attempted to break up the pass.
Skowronek first caught a 10-yard pass in the end zone to tie the game at 10-10 with 0:11 remaining in the first quarter. The second jump-ball touchdown also came in the end zone — this time on a seven-yard pass with four seconds until halftime. The Irish entered the break with a 31-16 advantage.
“That was a tough one, especially with us getting the ball back after halftime,” Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley said. “There was (nine) seconds left. I liked the call. They made a good call, the kid made a really good catch and it was a really good throw. But certainly, you’ve got to try to hold them to a field goal there or at least do better than that. And we didn’t.”
On Skowronek’s second touchdown, he showed how on the same page he is with Book. Skowronek appeared to be headed toward the middle of the field. Then Book danced out of the pocket to his left. So Skowronek appeared to break his route and turned back toward the sideline before catching a short pass and turning the play into a 13-yard touchdown.
Outside of the red zone, Skowronek caught two passes for 33 yards. One of those receptions went for 27 yards but resulted in Skowronek fumbling in the third quarter. That blunder turned out to not cost Notre Dame much, though. Irish linebacker Jack Kiser intercepted Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec on the following play.
“I thought we did a good job with their big (receivers),” Hafley said. “They are tough, because they are good at the point of attack. They are really tough in the red zone. That to me, that’s where big receivers show up the most: in the red zone. You’ve got to play them chest-to-chest and go up — and with all the rules in football that go against defensive backs, it’s hard.
“So in the red zone, they were a really good threat. But if you watched our DBs today, and I did a lot, because that’s where my eyes go, they fought. Ian just did a nice job of running around and keeping things alive. You can’t cover for that long.”
Notre Dame kicked a field goal on its first possession. Placekicker Jonathan Doerer capped the 13-play, 70-yard drive with a 23-yard field goal. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Skowronek reminded them that he had a favorable matchup following the field goal.
“Yeah, he plays with an edge,” Kelly said. “Oh those Fort Wayne guys, they play with an edge. We’ve been very fortunate with guys from Fort Wayne. And he just has certainly a skill set. He has great size and length and we like the matchups we get with him certainly in the red zone, as you could tell. But he also plays with a swagger and he wants the ball.”
Sent bunch of @seniorbowl invites to @NDFootball this week. WR Ben Skowronek wasn’t among them. After today’s 3 TD performance it might be getting mailed soon. Has physical tools at 6-2, 218 lbs, and 38 VJ. Good feet and route skills for a bigger WR and he blocks is butt off! pic.twitter.com/bqTVCrseRq— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) November 15, 2020
Benny Skow is 🔥🔥🔥— Chad Johnson (@ochocinco) November 15, 2020
Four games into the season, Notre Dame garnered minimal production from its wide receivers.
The relatively inexperienced group recorded an underwhelming 26 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns. But the Irish receivers surged in the last four games, securing 45 passes for 759 and seven touchdowns.
Skowronek working his way back from the hamstring injury he suffered in the season opener against Duke played a role in that improvement. The rise of fellow outside receiver Javon McKinley and slot speedster Avery Davis also helped.
McKinley caught five passes for 48 yards against BC while Davis tallied two receptions for 70 yards and turned one carry into 29 yards. Davis (13 catches for 221 yards) and McKinley (17 receptions for 293 yards were highly productive in the past four games.
Notre Dame’s offense is benefiting from this improvement, averaging 42 points per game in the last four contests. The Irish scoring at least 45 points in back-to-back games had not happened since 1996.
“Avery Davis, what I like is that he’s playing fast,” Kelly said. “You saw his burst when he caught the football. You saw him on the reverses. He really adds a great element to our offense. Now you add the two big guys on the outside (McKinley and Skowronek), the tight end play, the backs catching the ball. We are very difficult to defend right now.”
• Kelly notched win No. 100 at Notre Dame with this victory over BC. His 100 wins tie Lou Holtz for the second-most in program history.
• Book (7,936) leaped Tommy Rees (7,670) to No. 3 in Irish history in career passing yards. Book (635) also passed Rees (627) at No. 3 in Notre Dame’s all-time list for career completions. With his six-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, Book is now tied with Everett Golson and Joe Montana at No. 8 among Irish quarterbacks with 14 career rushing scores.
• Book has thrown 195 straight passes without an interception. Only Brady Quinn (226) in 2006 has tallied more throws without an interception in Notre Dame history.
• Irish junior running back C’Bo Flemister received the game ball after turning 10 carries into 53 yards and two touchdowns and recording one reception for 29 yards. Notre Dame rushed for 278 yards and three touchdowns on 47 attempts.
• Notre Dame linebackers Bo Bauer, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Kiser now have an interception on the season. The Irish have more interceptions from their linebackers (three) than defensive backs (two) this season.
• The following personnel from NFL teams attended Saturday’s game: Chris Pettit and Tim McDonnell (New York Giants), Andy Dengler (Jacksonville Jaguars), Matt Evans (Washington Football Team), Pat Roberts (Minnesota Vikings), Najja Johnson and Tom Hayden (Houston Texans), Matt Groh and Alex Brooks (New England Patriots), Josh Williams (San Francisco 49ers) and Todd Brunner (Seattle Seahawks).
• Graduate senior safety Shaun Crawford represented Notre Dame for the opening coin toss.