Hansen: Progress aptly trumped nostalgia in Notre Dame's Senior Day romp over BC

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The best Senior Days are the ones where nostalgia gets overpowered by what those sentimental moments might become someday.

The best legacies, after all, are the ones that live on, where those who played their final games in Notre Dame Stadium either set or reset a new standard, and those who follow remember what that turning point felt and looked like.

The beauty, though perhaps largely hidden, in AP No. 15 Notre Dame’s 40-7 bludgeoning of Boston College and the nation’s fifth-best rushing offense Saturday goes beyond the completion of the first back-to-back unbeaten seasons at home since the national title season in 1988 and a 1989 team that came close to a championship sequel.

More than anything, it’s how different the game looked from the 45-14 implosion at Michigan four weeks ago, especially from a defensive standpoint.

A non-sellout crowd of 71,827 looked on as wide receiver Braden Lenzy, with a single touch, outrushed the nation’s third-leading rusher, BC junior AJ Dillon, 61-56. So did Irish QB Ian Book (team-leading 66 on 12) and running back Tony Jones Jr. (61 on 15), as the Irish outgained the Eagles 252-128 on the ground, 501-191 overall, and 248 to 64 in total yards in the second half when a 16-7 halftime lead swelled by 24 points.

Those total defense and rush defense numbers ND produced on Senior Day are comparable to what ACC bully and third-ranked Clemson did to Boston College a month ago (177 total yards, 97 rushing yards). The Eagles have been under 220 rushing yards just one other time this season (157 vs. Virginia Tech) and were four short of 500 on the ground two games ago at Syracuse.

Boston College (5-6) doesn’t have a defense anywhere near as potent as Michigan’s. But its offensive line is better and its running game far more formidable than the one that gouged the Irish for 303 yards on 57 carries in the rain on Oct. 26.

At least from that single element, the game in Ann Arbor feels less season-defining and more like an outlier for the first time.

“We talk about failure. Failure is not fatal,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, his Irish 9-2 heading into a regular-season finale next Saturday at Stanford (4-7) and 31-6 since Kelly essentially reinvented himself after a 4-8 season in 2016.

“It’s the ability to come back from those times. This group certainly has learned that and understands how to get back up and go to work and persevere and show grit. Great life lessons.”

The Irish did it with a true freshman (Jacob Lacey) and a redshirt freshman (Ja’mion Franklin) playing a significant number of snaps on the interior of the defensive line and in high-leverage situations against an offense that pounds at teams in power formations with the 250-pound Dillon and 240-pound sidekick David Bailey, Franklin’s high school teammate incidentally.

An ankle sprain suffered last Saturday against Navy by key rotation player Jayson Ademilola and a leg injury to starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa less than a minute into the second half meant even more had to come from the two young ND interior linemen.

And yet the Irish defense got better as the game went on.

As for Tagovailoa-Amosa, what looked like a serious injury initially, Kelly assured after the game was not.

“Soft tissue, but no structural damage,” he said. “Don’t feel like there’s anything to be concerned about moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Dillon, the grandson of former Irish All-America wide receiver Thom Gatewood, came into the game averaging 145.1 rushing yards per game. He garnered 14 carries in amassing his season-low 56 yards against a team he pushed aside in the recruiting process.

Bailey, with 765 yards and a 5.6 per-carry average coming in, labored for 26 yards on 10 carries. Meanwhile, the BC passing game was virtually non-existent — 63 yards — 39 coming on a single play that set up the Eagles’ only score — while yielding four sacks.

BC came into the game No. 2 nationally in fewest sacks allowed.

And the Irish defense forced two turnovers from a team that rarely gives the ball up — ninth nationally in giveaways. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton garnered his fourth interception of the season, and senior defensive end Khalid Kareem forced a fumble, with junior linebacker Drew White recovering.

“They have a hell of a defense,” said Eagles coach Steve Addazio, a former Irish assistant whose record at BC against ranked teams sank to 2-19. “Statistically, they have a hell of a defense. That’s really the tale of the game right there.”

But is it the tale of the future as well?

A defense that returns talent and depth at every position except, perhaps, cornerback will move into the top 25 in total defense most assuredly when the national rankings are released Sunday morning. The only Kelly team to have such a ranking at year’s end was the 2012 team (seventh) that played for the national title.

“It’s controlling the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said of his team’s defensive surge since Michigan. “It’s just not one guy.

“I mean, we have lost two really good players on defense (ends Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes). They trust each other. They do their job. They’re not doing somebody else’s job. There’s a lot of pieces to this.”

The Irish offense, meanwhile, started slow and committed six illegal procedure penalties, but was buoyed early by four field goals from junior Jonathan Doerer. He’s 12-of-14 on field goals this season after making ones of 47, 29, 45 and 37.

“I’m so proud of him and his ability to really change his mindset and the way he’s gone about it,” Kelly said of a player who struggled mightily in that area as recently as this past spring. “This is all on Jon Doerer. One hundred percent.”

Once the ND offense did find itself, junior tight end Cole Kmet and senior wide receivers Chris Finke and Chase Claypool each hauled in seven receptions and each scored a TD.

Lenzy didn’t catch a pass, but his reverse stands as ND’s longest run from scrimmage this season.

Book, meanwhile, continues to build from his career-worst performance at Michigan. He was 26-of-40 for 239 yards, three TDs and no interceptions on Saturday before giving way to backup Phil Jurkovec.

Book even provided some intrigue when the senior with a fifth-year-option was asked after the game if he’d played his last game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We’ll see,” he said.

He was more engrossed in his and the team’s immediate future, to which he was equally bold and hardly nostalgic.

“We’re feeling dangerous,” he said.

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Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) tackles Boston College’s Kobay White (9) during Saturday’s game in Notre Dame Stadium.ndf_bc_11232019_cw_15.jpg
Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman (11) sacks Boston College’s Dennis Grosel (6) during Saturday’s game at Notre Dame Stadium.ndf_bc_11232019_cw_03.jpg