SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Ugly, grind-'em-out victories count just the same as a rout.
Saddled with awful field position all afternoon, No. 24 Notre Dame needed to recover an onside kick with about 2 minutes left and then stifle a last-gasp flurry of laterals to hold off Boston College 16-14 on Saturday. The victory, rough as it may have been, was the fourth in a row for the Irish (8-3), who have matched last year's victory total and won eight of nine after beginning the year 0-2.
"Winning is hard in college football," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose teams have won 15 straight games in November. "I just like the way our guys now understand how to win games. In November, it's hard to win unless you've got a great mental outlook, and our guys do. They have overcome so many injuries late, and they keep battling."
Jonas Gray continued his breakout year, rushing for 61 yards and extending his scoring streak to eight games with a 26-yard rumble on the opening drive. But he left with what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the third quarter, and will have more tests Sunday. David Ruffer kicked field goals of 40, 41 and 27 yards for Notre Dame, which has won three straight against Boston College (3-8) after losing six in a row.
The Eagles struggled to get anything going offensively for most of the second half, with Chase Rettig throwing 10 incompletions in a row at one point. He got on track just in time to make things interesting, finding Chris Pantale for a 21-yard gain and throwing a 17-yarder to Rolandan Finch as the Eagles advanced to the Notre Dame 16 with about 3 minutes to play. A pass interference call on Zeke Motta moved Boston College to the 2 and, after a false start and an incompletion, Rettig connected with Bobby Swigert for a 7-yard score.
The Eagles went for the onside kick, but Robby Toma came up with the ball just past midfield. The Irish tried to run out the ball, but they came up eight seconds short and Ben Turk's punt went into the end zone, giving the Eagles the ball at their own 20. Rettig threw an 8-yard pass to Colin Larmond Jr., who then lateraled back to Swigert. Swigert fumbled the ball but Bobby Vardaro scooped it up before Irish linebacker Troy Niklas made the final tackle at the Boston College 14 to end the game.
"We had a lot of opportunities that we did not capitalize on," Swigert said. "We moved the ball pretty well, but we did not convert a couple of short third downs. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot."
Boston College was just 3 of 13 on third-down conversions, and came away with only Swigert's score despite advancing to the Irish 44 or beyond three times in the second half.
Eagles linebacker Luke Kuechly finished with 14 tackles, giving him 523 for his career -- one shy of the Boston College record set by Steven Boyd from 1991-94. Kuechly did set the ACC career record, which had been 516.
"I play football to win. I don't try to set any records," Kuechly said. "If we would have won, it would have been cool. But we lost."
Notre Dame looked as if it was going to have an easy afternoon when it marched 80 yards on its opening drive, with Gray shredding the Boston College defense on his 26-yard scoring run. But the Irish were hampered by poor field position all afternoon, starting five drives inside their own 10-yard line, and the offense never quite got into gear.
Boston College stopped the Irish just outside the red zone twice, and held them to a third field goal after they'd gotten to the Eagles 10. Tommy Rees was picked off around midfield on another drive, and finished 24 of 39 for 256 yards.
Michael Floyd had 10 catches for 92 yards in his final game at Notre Dame Stadium, including a nifty 18-yard reverse in the fourth quarter. But he dropped what almost certainly would have been a touchdown five plays later. He also had an open field on Notre Dame's second drive, but couldn't catch up to Rees' pass.
Cierre Wood had 94 yards for Notre Dame, giving him 1,001 for the season.
"It's a win," Rees said. "It wasn't pretty. It wasn't, at times, the most successful offense we've had, obviously. Anytime you can get a win this late in November, you'll take it."