Four wins, 19 losses.
That represents Boston College football’s all-time record against the Penn State Nittany Lions. With a .174 winning percentage in 23 games dating back to 1949, it will take the Eagles 220 years at their current rate to take the advantage in the rivalry. This stipulates that Penn State never wins another game between the two.
But not all hope is lost.
BC currently rides the hot hand in the series, winning three of its last four matchups against Penn State—the most recent coming in 2004. The Eagles play a different role this time around—BC opens as the early favorite, with a three and a half point spread, according to Vegas Insider.
BC also comes into the New Era Pinstripe Bowl as the better team this season. For the first time since 2007—if you ignore Penn State’s many vacated wins from the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal—the Eagles (7-5, 4-4 ACC) have a better record than the Nittany Lions (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten).
Unlike previous years, BC’s record cannot be accredited to playing in the traditionally football-weak ACC. Four of BC’s losses came against teams which, at one point during the season, ranked in the AP Poll. Three of those teams—Clemson, Louisville, and playoff-bound Florida State—play in BC’s Atlantic Division and finished the regular season in the Top 25. BC also defeated one ranked team (its memorable upset of No. 9 Southern California), which still looks impressive after the Trojans’ resurgence to the back end of the poll.
Penn State earned a bowl berth in large part because of its perfect 4-0 record in non-conference games. Only one of those four games (PSU’s opening week victory against AAC Champion Central Florida) featured a team with a winning regular season record.
On the other hand, Penn State still seems plagued by the lasting effects of the NCAA’s sanctions resulting from the Sandusky scandal.
While the Big Ten got stronger—featuring two top-10 teams—PSU dropped to sixth out of seven in the conference’s East Division, leading only 4-8 Indiana. The Nittany Lions also fell to two conference opponents that finished with losing records (Northwestern and Michigan) while missing out on opportunities against Michigan State and Ohio State, the two ranked teams PSU played in 2014.
The Nittany Lions finished with two conference wins, against Indiana and Rutgers. Neither victory, however, proved much about the team, as the Nittany Lions scored only 13 points in each game, winning by a margin of a touchdown or less.
PSU’s performance in those two games runs consistent with its season-long offensive disappointments. Penn State finished 115th in the nation in points per game, with an average of 19.8. The Nittany Lions’ negative 7.85 offensive efficiency rating ranks at a paltry 116th in the country, second-lowest among Power Five Conference teams according to ESPN. Only the 3-9 Wake Forest ranks lower.
On the ground, PSU features a solid two-man rushing attack in Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton. Both have put up decent numbers—Lynch leads the team with 603 yards on the ground. The Nittany Lions overall, on the other hand, finished 120th in the nation in rushing yards per game at 103.6, gaining only a total of 1,243 yards. By contrast, BC quarterback Tyler Murphy nearly gained that amount on the ground this year on his own.
Much of Penn State’s offensive woes, however, result from a poor season by quarterback Christian Hackenberg. His 2,606 passing yards ranked solidly among all quarterbacks at 51st, but he only passed for eight touchdowns against 15 interceptions, 10th-most in the NCAA.
Additionally, the sophomore’s 54.4 completion percentage ranks lower than even Murphy. This represents a downturn from his impressive freshman year—his total yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, quarterback rating, and QBR all took significant hits.
The Nittany Lions’ deficiencies while possessing the ball overshadow what has been a stellar season for new head coach James Franklin’s defense.
Led by defensive linemen Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes, PSU tops the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, ranking seventh overall in the NCAA at a 12.18 clip. Penn State gave up the fewest rushing yards per game in the country, allowing only 84.6 per game. Although the Eagles faced many of the nation’s top defenses this year—Louisville, Clemson, Virginia Tech, to name a few—PSU’s low mark should concern BC head coach Steve Addazio.
Given Penn State’s deficiencies, BC should come up strong on both sides of the ball.
Expect the Eagles to continue their season-long march on the ground. Six BC players personally gained over 200 yards on the ground this season, Murphy leading with 1,079. BC finished 15th in the NCAA with 3,022 total rushing yards. The matchup between BC’s rushers and Penn State’s defensive front seven should prove the most intriguing one in the game.
The Eagles, however, possess a huge advantage on defense. BC defensive coordinator Don Brown built his defense to subdue the run—the Eagles rank fourth in the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed, giving up only 94.8 per game. This will force Hackenberg to the air, where BC has strong secondary men Dominique Williams and Manuel Asprilla eager to add to the beleaguered quarterback’s high interception total.
There’s a good chance the Eagles will never close this win-loss gap, whether because of a lack of opportunities to play each other or the sheer statistical improbability to make up for that deficit. If, however, BC overcomes this battered Nittany Lions team in the Pinstripe Bowl—the first postseason game between these 120-year-old programs—well, that’s a good start on that long upward march.
Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor