Eagles Look To Return To Power Run Game Against Northern Illinois

The Boston College Eagles hope to get back on the winning track against Northern Illinois University on Saturday afternoon, one week removed from a convincing loss to Florida State. The Eagles’ stout defense surrendered only 217 yards on Friday night, but it wasn’t enough to overcome an anemic offensive attack that produced more turnovers than points in a shutout loss.

Northern Illinois also lost its perfect record last week, but almost pulled off the upset of the year before it was over. The Huskies fell to defending champion Ohio State 20-13 in the Horseshoe Saturday afternoon in a game which Northern Illinois led and had every opportunity to win. NIU forced five turnovers and held Ohio State’s vaunted duo of quarterbacks to fewer than 150 passing yards combined. The Huskies were well-positioned to tie the game in the fourth quarter trailing by seven, but they failed to register even one first down on any of their final three possessions.

BC enters this matchup as a four-point favorite over the visiting Huskies due to its combination of strong defense, status as a Power-Five team, and home field advantage. However, the Eagles will be without their starting quarterback Darius Wade, who has been lost for the season due to a broken ankle that he suffered in the second half against Florida State.

In Wade’s absence, the Eagles will lean on a pair of freshmen, Troy Flutie and Jeff Smith, to guide them to victory. Head coach Steve Addazio has yet to decide which of the freshmen will start on Saturday, although it is widely speculated that both will play. Troy Flutie, the nephew of BC legend Doug Flutie, is the better passer of the two and has a better understanding of the offensive system (having redshirted last year), while Jeff Smith is the superior athlete, capable of supplying the explosive plays that BC desperately needed on Friday night. Understanding that the two quarterbacks bring different skills to the table, Flutie with his arm and Smith with his legs, Addazio promises that “[the coaching staff] is going to carve out a gameplan that we think will best suit the talents of the guys we have.” If he decides to play both quarterbacks in the game, he’ll “do it less on who has the hot hand and more on packaging.”

That said, it won’t matter who lines up at quarterback if the Eagles can’t fix their broken rushing attack. Owners of one of the country’s most effective ground games a year ago, the Eagles have failed to establish the run three games into the 2015 season. Their starting running back, preseason all-ACC selection Jonathan Hilliman, has 79 yards on the season thus far with one touchdown and is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. For an offense that is based on establishing the run to open up the pass, the Eagles’ issues in the run game are alarming. If the Eagles hope to stand any chance against the gritty Huskies, they will have to find a way to consistently win the battle at the line of scrimmage and move the chains on the ground.

All the worries about quarterback play in this matchup belong to the Eagles, however, as the Huskies sport one of the most underrated signal-callers in the country: Drew Hare. The junior is coming off a highly successful sophomore campaign in which he led the Huskies to an 11-3 record behind the strength of a 9:1 touchdown pass to interception ratio. In the first two games of the season (against UNLV and Murray State), Hare completed 78 percent of his passes, threw six touchdowns, and totaled 718 passing yards.

Last week in the narrow loss to Ohio State, Hare was limited to just 80 yards passing, failed to throw a single touchdown pass, completed 45 percent of his passes, and threw his first two interceptions of the season. While Hare has proven to be a more-than-capable quarterback, his performance against Ohio State suggests that he can be shut down by a good defense—like BC’s.

Though strong overall, the stars of BC’s defense come from the defensive line. Led by upperclassmen Connor Wujciak, Kevin Kavalec, and Truman Gutapfel, and boasting a new breakout star in sophomore defensive end Harold Landry, the Eagles have had great success shutting down opponents’ ground games and getting to the quarterback. Landry in particular has been a force to be reckoned with. Last week against Florida State, Landry totaled 11 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks, good enough to garner the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. “I thought the defense did a good job against [Florida State],” Landry said following Tuesday’s practice. “Our goal as a defense is to shut the other team down and get three-and-outs, and we were able to do that for most of [Friday’s] game.”

The Eagles are counting on Landry to continue his strong play against the Huskies’ potent attack and to create some turnovers that can help out a young offense. Field position (or lack thereof) was a big culprit in the Eagles’ loss Friday night: on average, they started from the 19 yard line against FSU. “We played on a long field all night, which is not a great place to be for a young football team,” Addazio said. “Good luck with that.”

For BC to succeed against the Huskies, it’s offense will need to start farther up the field than it did against the Seminoles. That will happen if players like Landry create some turnovers in the opposing team’s backfield.

In a game that appears to be evenly matched, the Eagles will need toughness from their defense and a reinvigorated rushing attack if they want to win a football game on Parents Weekend for the first time in four years.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor