With their postseason hopes ended a week ago and their status as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s worst team solidified, this latest edition of the Holy War was considered across the Boston College locker room as the Eagles’ bowl game.
It was a chance to face a team with the national title game in its crosshairs, on national television.
There was history involved.
The memories of the Eagles setting fire to Notre Dame’s undefeated seasons in 1993 and 2002 were distant but still vivid.
It was their only true prime-time game of the season, and the Eagles not only understood the atmosphere, they embraced it.
“It’s Notre Dame, everyone knows them when you’re growing up,” said quarterback Chase Rettig. “Everyone says play each game the same, but that doesn’t stand true when you’re playing Notre Dame. It’s an extra focus and awareness and just an exciting game. If they don’t think it’s a rivalry, we still have that sense of mind.”
But overwhelming talent trumped motivation. What BC brought in energy and enthusiasm, the Irish brought in execution.
A 21-6 victory gave No. 4 Notre Dame its third straight win in a series that goes back 37 years. Undefeated and eying the BCS title game, it was a matter-of-fact outcome if not a marvel for pollsters.
For the Eagles, their desolate season is still two games from ending mercifully. Their coach has been under fire for its duration and their locker room has had to find ways to rebound from disappointing losses.
The thought that spoiling the Irish’s season could somehow salvage BC’s didn’t ring true for Frank Spaziani.
“This is a big rivalry game for us at BC,” the coach said. “Obviously when you’re playing — what are they, ranked third or fourth — the rewards are exponential. But I don’t look at it that way.”
Rettig (27 of 43, 247 yards) passed for more than 200 yards for the ninth time this season. Alex Amidon caught six passes for 84 yards, running his season totals to 73 catches for a BC season-record 1,157 yards. And again it was futile.
Irish quarterback Everett Golson won his eighth consecutive game as the starter, throwing touchdown passes to John Goodman and Troy Niklas and running one in himself. Linebacker Manti Te’o made five tackles and came up with a fourth-quarter interception that gave him six for the season, a school record for linebackers.
From its first drive, Notre Dame put on a seminar in precision: Thirteen plays, 95 yards, five minutes and 39 seconds.
Golson completed passes of 13, 24, and 14 yards, looking effortless. He marched the Irish to BC’s 2-yard line, and on third down finished it himself, taking a snap from the shotgun and keeping it for his fifth rushing touchdown of the season.
The 7-3 first-quarter score and the 14-3 halftime margin were both illusions. The Eagles managed to keep the game close by burning 7:31 off the clock with a 15-play, 69-yard drive. Rettig, noticeably keyed up, motioned at the crowd for more noise. When the Eagles came away with just a Nate Freese field goal (14 of 15 on the season with a season-long 45-yarder in the fourth quarter), they were almost equally energized and disappointed.
They were up against a Notre Dame offense that moved down the field at the speed of business.
Their strengths were BC’s weaknesses. They converted 10 straight third downs through the third quarter. The Eagles’ had sabotaged themselves all season on third down.
The Irish marked their territory with their running game, rushing for 184 yards. BC, of course, had been unable to stop the run all season.
Their miscues (a George Atkinson fumble in the first quarter and a Theo Riddick fumble in the fourth) cost them nothing. Their eight penalties were by and large harmless.
Their offense still averaged nearly 7 yards per play. They found the end zone on three of their first four possessions.
BC remained unable to run the ball even with the return of castaway Rolandan “Deuce” Finch, who made his first appearance since Sept. 15 against Northwestern (fumbling and off-field issues landed him in Spaziani’s doghouse). Andre Williams’s abdominal injury left the Eagles thin in the backfield and Spaziani had to turn to Finch. He carried the ball seven times for 40 yards.
In the context of a disjointed season, the fact that BC had lost eight straight games to ranked teams dating to 2008 blended into the background.
They had beaten just one FBS team all season, and the two ranked teams they faced prior to Notre Dame — Florida State and Clemson — beat them by a combined 58 points.
The dramatic gap that has grown in the past four seasons between BC and the elite teams in both their conference and the nation has possibly reached its widest point this season, with the Eagles barely competing in the ACC and sinking into irrelevance nationally just five years removed from the Matt Ryan era.
“They are all the same to us — or to me,” Spaziani said. “The opponents out there, we think we can beat every team every week. Certain teams have a lot more talent than other teams. This was a talented team.
“I think what’s frustrating about it is playing hard and doing some things, it’s not enough. Not enough.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.