Looking to bounce back from their first loss of the 2017 campaign, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hit the road for the first of two consecutive road matchups. Saturday’s game pits the Irish against the Boston College Eagles, who also enter this clash looking to get back to winning after an embarrassing home loss to Wake Forest.
Notre Dame has won the last five meetings, with Brian Kelly bringing a spotless 4-0 mark into the game in this series. Below are a number of key matchups to watch that may spell the difference in this contest:
Jerry Tillery vs. Alec Lindstrom
Tillery’s season of redemption after his embarrassing end to 2016 has seen him collect a total of nine tackles in the first two games of the season, including four unassisted stops. Right now, he only has one shared tackle-for-loss to his credit, so there’s plenty of room for improvement in the weeks and months ahead.
Looking at this game a few weeks ago, Tillery was expected to match up against the leader of the Eagle offensive line in center Jon Baker. That changed abruptly when Baker suffered a knee injury in the Boston College opener at Northern Illinois and was then ruled out for the season prior to last Saturday’s game because of a torn ACL.
Lindstrom is a true freshman who took part in spring practice after starting school in January. That can definitely be beneficial for any newcomer, with Lindstrom also having his brother Chris working with him in the trenches. Of course, the lack of experience is something that can be exploited, which Tillery needs to be aware of for this game.
Alize Mack vs. Connor Strachan
Mack’s return to the Notre Dame lineup after sitting out last season has seen him collect two grabs in each of the first two games. However, only one of them, a 32-yard grab against Georgia that helped set up a field goal, has been of any consequence. That means getting him more integrated into the offense amid heavy competition at his position remains a challenge.
Such integration could be difficult against Strachan, who has shifted to the strong side this year after having made his name inside the previous two seasons. Despite standing just 6-feet even and 230 pounds, Strachan led Boston College in tackles last year and possesses both the versatility and defensive skills to make the afternoon difficult for Mack.
Anthony Brown vs. Notre Dame Pass Defense
The question in this case is which version of Brown will appear on Saturday. Is it the one that completed 26 of 42 for 191 yards in the season-opening win over Northern Illinois or is it the one who threw three interceptions, including a pick-six, in the disastrous loss to Wake Forest.
To be fair, two of the interceptions came as a result of balls being tipped by Eagles receivers into the hands of Wake defenders. Still, the issue was enough to get Brown yanked from the game in the third quarter, though after some debate in the two days after the loss, he was announced as Saturday’s starter.
On the other side, two outstanding catches by Georgia last Saturday spelled the difference in the game. The Irish pass defense has shown improvement this season, thanks to an improved pass rush, while the receiving corps of Boston College doesn’t come close to matching Georgia’s talent level. However, Notre Dame can’t afford to let down their guard in this area.
Nyles Morgan vs. Jon Hilliman
Morgan enters this game as the leading tackler for the Irish, with 15 stops that also included one sack. His nominal effort against Temple was replaced by a strong performance against Georgia that offered a much stiffer challenge when going up against the Bulldogs’ array of running backs. That level of depth won’t be evident when they travel to Chestnut Hill.
Hilliman is still trying to return to his 2014 level after seeing much of the past two seasons affected by injury. He ran for 119 yards in the Eagles’ win against Northern Illinois, but had a mixed bag in the team’s loss to Wake Forest by combining his first-ever collegiate touchdown reception with a costly fumble that led to Wake’s first score.
Tommy Kraemer/Robert Hainsey vs. Harold Landry
Kraemer and Hainsey continue to split their time at right offensive tackle, with both needing to be at their best against Landry. That means avoiding the dreaded false start penalties that have particularly been a problem for Hainsey and were also an issue during last year’s disastrous campaign.
Landry stands 6-foot-3 and weights 250, but brings plenty of speed to the field. Both Kraemer and Hainsey are tasked with protecting Brandon Wimbush against a player who collected 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles-for-loss last season. In the Eagles’ two games this year, Landry hasn’t had much of an impact, but it would aid Notre Dame enormously if they could keep the defensive end’s talents under wraps for one more week.