BOSTON — And now, we wait as the cacophony of questions surrounding Notre Dame and the College Football Playoff grows louder.
Will the College Football Playoff selection committee penalize Notre Dame for a sloppy, ugly, insert-your-disappointing-adjective-here 19-16 win over Boston College Saturday night at Fenway Park? Or will the group of 12 men and women who are the only people who directly control Notre Dame’s playoff hopes keep the Irish — a team that’s been “solidly” ranked No. 4 the last two weeks — in position to participate in the four-team tournament on New Year’s Eve?
“The committee is out of my hands, it's out of our players' hands,” coach Brian Kelly said. “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.”
What similarly was out of Notre Dame’s player’s hands on Saturday, in uncharacteristic fashion, was the football.
Notre Dame committed five turnovers in its win over Boston College at the home of the Boston Red Sox, three of which came within the Eagles’ 10-yard line, and the other two came inside the 40. This was as bad as Notre Dame has looked offensively all year: Quarterback DeShone Kizer was picked off twice in or near the end zone and once on an “obviously idiotic,” as he put it, throw off his back foot. Running backs C.J. Prosise — who later left the game due to a high ankle sprain and didn’t return — and Josh Adams both had balls stripped by Boston College’s aggressive defense.
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“(Kizer) was humbled a little bit today, and I think it's going to be really good for him,” Kelly said. “He's going to take this and really build on it.”
But a playoff race is an inopportune time for lessons to be learned, even with Kizer only a redshirt freshman. Notre Dame was bailed out by its defense, which stuffed Boston College’s generally-feeble offense for most of the evening until quarterback Jeff Smith ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Against a more competent offense, Notre Dame might’ve paid a much harsher price for those five turnovers than the possibility of being dinged in the College Football Playoff rankings that’ll be unveiled Tuesday night.
Notre Dame, though, never was in any serious danger of losing to Boston College. Maybe had Matthias Farley not cleanly fielded a ground ball onside kick behind second base with 54 seconds left things would’ve been more stressful, but even despite the rash of turnovers it never felt like Boston College was in any legitimate position to upset the Irish.
“I felt like we had good control,” wide receiver Chris Brown, who caught six passes for a career high 104 yards with a touchdown, said. “It was just unfortunate events where we were turning the ball over. If you look at us, we really moved the ball up and down the field. Credit Boston College, they played a really good game on defense, they had a really good game plan. I feel like we controlled the ball and moved it. We just gotta eliminate the turnovers.”
The oddity of Saturday’s game — and perhaps frustrating part for Notre Dame — is how well the Irish offense played in a turnover-free vacuum. Notre Dame averaged 6.2 yards per play against a defense that allowed the lowest average (3.9) among FBS teams entering the weekend. Kizer threw for 320 yards, while Brown and Amir Carlisle combined for 13 catches, 201 yards and two scores. This was a much better offensive game than Notre Dame played against Wake Forest — again, minus the turnovers. And it’s not like those, especially given where they happened on the field, can be ignored.
“It's like leaving runners in scoring position,” Kelly said from the same interview room where Red Sox manager John Farrell undoubtedly discussed those issues in a non-metaphorical sense plenty over the last two seasons. “You can't go down there and not come away with points. … We were moving the ball fairly effectively most of the night, and just to keep stubbing our toe down there becomes concerning, obviously, and it made it a lot closer in my perspective.”
So the problem for Notre Dame is the optics of committing more turnovers (five) than its margin of victory (three) against a team that’s now 3-8 aren’t good. No. 7 Oklahoma staved off a furious rally from No. 18 TCU to win by one in Norman, while No. 10 Baylor barreled into Stillwater and dealt No. 6 Oklahoma State its first loss of the season.
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Of course, Notre Dame-Boston College wasn’t Florida-needing-overtime-to-beat-FAU bad. And it doesn’t really matter if the Big Ten — either Iowa or Michigan State — moves past Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff rankings this week. What matters is how the selection committee stacks up Notre Dame with the Big 12 champion, which will be Oklahoma (if it beats Oklahoma State) or Baylor (if Oklahoma loses and it beats TCU and Texas).
“I say this over and over, but it is so hard to win football games,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “… We’re not thinking about style points, we’re not thinking about anybody else besides us and the game at hand and how we can try to execute better.”
Notre Dame will have to play better than it did against Wake Forest and Boston College to emerge from Palo Alto with an 11-1 record. It can spin this win over Boston College as a learning experience, or detail how difficult it is to win in November. Players and coaches will have to hope the selection committee views things the same way.
“This week, the mission was to beat BC,” Kizer said. “We accomplished that mission. We’ll evaluate where we are when it comes to our big goals later down the road.”