Notre Dame survives another scare in win over Boston College

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

BOSTON —The debate that raged around them grew louder Saturday night with every puff of defiance that Boston College converted into a scar.

Could the CFP fourth-ranked Notre Dame football team, a great story for its continued resilience, finally evolve into a great team?

In reality on Saturday night, in the first college football game at iconic baseball stadium Fenway Park in 59 years and the first of any kind since 1968, the Irish were neither.

The 19-16 edging of a BC team now sporting its longest losing streak since 1978 — seven games — put a stain along with the win on the Irish résumé in what’s turning into a beauty contest among one-loss teams for playoff spots.

Third-ranked Ohio State, sixth-ranked Oklahoma State and No. 19 Houston all joined those ranks Saturday with upset losses, leaving No. 1 Clemson and fifth-ranked Iowa as the only unbeatens in the 128-team FBS still standing.

The Shamrock Series victory by the AP fifth-ranked Irish (10-1) was at its most pungent when the nation’s worst offense drove 86 yards in nine plays to pull the Eagles to within three with 54 seconds left, on a Jeff Smith three-yard pass to Charlie Callinan, and wasn’t secure in the win column until Irish safety Matthias Farley recovered the ensuing onside kick.

Some potential long-term damage may have been done as well outside of the hits to the national perception. Running back C.J. Prosise left the game in the first half after suffering a high ankle sprain, but breaching a 1,000-yard mark this season first. It’s the 18th in Irish history.

And cornerback KeiVarae Russell had to be helped off the field late as Boston College (3-8) was driving for its final score. Kelly said after the game the senior starter suffered a stress fracture in his foot.

Five Notre Dame turnovers — three in the red zone and two inside the BC three-yard line — set the stage for the Eagles to at least muddy up an Irish victory party and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s Boston homecoming before a sell-out crowd of 38,686.

“We're excited about the win obviously,” said Kelly, perhaps showing off his pre-coaching background in politics. “To get to 10 wins for our club was a very important number for us. But more importantly it gets us closer to the goals that we've had all year.

“What I love about this team is they persevere. It's been injuries all year. Tonight it was turnovers. We just found a way to win against a very spirited Boston College team despite the amount of turnovers we had tonight.”

It was the fourth win in as many tries in Kelly’s return trips to the Boston area. Two of the previous three came during seasons when the coach got his team into the national title game.

The Irish will have to do an about-face at CFP No. 11 Stanford next Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST, FOX-TV) if this team is going to stay in that conversation.

The first Kelly return was while coaching Grand Valley State in a first-round Division II playoff game in 2003, a 65-36 rout of Bentley. Kelly’s last GVS team captured the national championship.

Nine years later, he was back with a Notre Dame team that later lost to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. That Irish team subdued Boston College, 21-6, in Chestnut Hill. In between, an eventual 8-5 Kelly-coached Irish team beat BC, 31-13, in Chestnut Hill in 2010.

Boston College acquiesced to the respect card all week, allowing that Notre Dame playing a home game in its back yard, no matter how iconic, was an affront to the Eagles. The Irish started the Shamrock Series concept, an annual offsite home game, in 2009.

And until the last 11 minutes of the game, BC didn’t do much to express its real or manufactured outrage, even with all of ND’s help in the form of turnovers.

BC third-year head coach Steve Addazio rotated two true freshman quarterbacks, walk-on John Fadule and scholarship frosh Smith, and finally broke through on an 80-yard run by Smith in the fourth quarter.

Those two started the season as his third-and-fourth team QBs.

The Irish led 19-3 before Smith’s run, on two DeShone Kizer TD passes and a pair of Justin Yoon field goals, when Smith executed a misdirection play to perfection to chop the Irish lead to 10 at the 10:17 mark. The two-point conversion pass failed.

“Assignment error,” Kelly said of Smith’s score. “It's absolutely crazy. There's one guy in there that's assigned to him. We have a tendency to lose our focus on detailed items like that — a quarterback that runs that came in the game that we have somebody on him."

A total of 172 of BC’s 302 offensive yards in the game and six of its 13 first downs came in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame had a chance to ice the game with a little more than four minutes left, but Irish star receiver Will Fuller dropped a long pass from Kizer after getting behind the BC defense. Had he made the catch, the Irish would have, at the very least, been in business inside the BC 10.

The Irish did manage 447 total yards on the nation’s No. 1 total defense, just 40 fewer than what BC yielded combined in losses to Virginia Tech (26-10) and North Carolina State (24-8) the previous two weeks.

Kizer was 20-of-38 passing for 320 yards and the TD tosses to Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown, but he threw three interceptions.

“Quarterbacks — they can go one of two ways,” Kelly said of the redshirt freshman QB’s miscues. “They can become a bit shell-shocked and withdrawn in a sense. He was not fazed at all.

“He stayed aggressive and stayed in the moment. He played much better in the second half. But he is going to learn so much and take so much from today's game."

Kelly is 144-6-1 in his career when his team allows 19 points or fewer and is 81-1 in his last 82 such games.

The next test before Stanford comes Tuesday when the College Football Playoff Selection committee, processes ND’s numbers and its latest eye test of the Irish, and releases its next set of rankings.

"The committee is out of my hands,’ Kelly said. “That's out of our players' hands. All we want to do is put ourselves in a position to be considered.

“We feel like we need to win another game to still be considered. We're one of the top four teams after last week. We'll see where we stand this week. We just gotta keep winning games."

Notre Dame’s Amir Carlisle (3) celebrates a touchdown with teammates during the first half of the Notre Dame-Boston College NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, inside Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN