The last 12 months have not been kind to the inhabitants of Alumni Stadium and their increasingly irate fan base. Amid a rash of injuries and gut-wrenching losses, Boston College football has backed itself into a frustrating position for students and administrators alike. The temptation for those around Chestnut Hill to bemoan the misery that has befallen their team is nearly irresistible. Fortunately for the Eagles (0-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast), the opposition on Saturday afternoon in Gillette Stadium features a program mired in a significantly worse rut.
The University of Massachusetts enters this weekend’s local affair in tatters. Following a disastrous move to the FBS level before the 2012 season, UMass (0-1) begins its fifth season at college football’s highest level as an independent, having chosen to leave the Mid-American Conference. Over the last four seasons, the Minutemen have gone 8-40, including a pair of 1-11 seasons.
The program’s jump to FBS has failed to bring in the desired revenue to the school, even given UMass’s tendency to schedule high-paying non conference games against the likes of Notre Dame. A primary component of the revenue shortage stems from a drop in fan support. The high volume of losses has driven away fans in droves. Additionally, student support has waned as UMass plays select home games at Gillette Stadium, a two-hour drive from campus, while McGuirk Stadium undergoes significant renovations.
Head coach Mark Whipple’s crew has its hands full this season, needing to replace significant personnel on both sides of the ball. Given that the team struggled so much last season even with the now-departed veterans present, his current task appears monumental.
Last season, Whipple used a pro-style offense, led by quarterback Blake Frohnapfel. The senior threw for 2,919 yards, but just 16 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. His numbers were aided by the presence of Tajae Sharpe, who reeled in 111 passes for 1,319 yards. The explosive receiver, now a starter with the Tennessee Titans, spent the entire season laying waste to defenses designed almost exclusively to stop him. His departure, along with those of every player who tallied more than 210 receiving yards, means that the Minutemen will need to reconstruct their entire passing offense on the fly.
Though he’s dealing with a young offense, Whipple should use this restart as an opportunity to stress the importance of third-down plays and red-zone opportunities. In 2015, UMass converted just 34.8 percent of its third downs, tied for 109th nationally, and scored points on only 69 percent of its red zone possessions, a mark only five teams failed to beat. Though its opposition as an independent—UMass has Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Brigham Young on the docket this season—may snuff out most long drives, converting these crucial plays will allow the Minutemen to at least remain competitive and give their defense a breather.
On the ground, sophomore running back Marquis Young returns. Young led the team with 960 rushing yards as a freshman, showing very good speed and cutting ability. He proved durable as the season wore on, carrying the ball over 30 times in two of the team’s final three games, and ran for 240 yards and three touchdowns in the season finale against Buffalo. The ground game should get a boost from quarterback Ross Comis, a dual-threat redshirt sophomore. Comis has good mobility, though against elite defenses, he may not be able to showcase it.
In its opening 24-7 defeat at the hands of No. 25 Florida (1-0), UMass played a surprisingly competitive game. Entering as 36.5-point underdogs, the Minutemen only trailed 10-7 entering the fourth quarter. Despite this, the offense looked predictably shaky. Comis only completed nine of his 17 pass attempts, although he did connect with sophomore Andy Isabella on a beautiful 53-yard bomb. He couldn’t find much running room and looked flustered in the pocket. His offensive line didn’t help him much, surrendering numerous sacks and pressures to Florida’s more physical defensive line. Though he carried the ball 19 times, Young only managed 59 yards on the ground. Hearkening back to last season’s issues, the Minutemen only converted one of 11 third-down plays, unable to keep the Gators’ offense off the field for any extended period.
Against BC, look for UMass to face many of the same issues, as it simply lacks the physicality up front to keep the Eagles’ elite defense out of the backfield. Though the Minutemen’s skill position players have speed, if Comis is forced to evade pass rushers all afternoon, nothing will come of it. Barring some of the third-and-long defensive lapses seen against Georgia Tech, BC should have no problem neutralizing the UMass attack.
While they struggled on offense, the Minutemen really surprised on defense in their opener. For a team not known for its pressure, and with a unit missing four departed seniors in the secondary, Whipple’s men made life very difficult for the Gator offense. They closed off rushing lanes and prevented Florida from establishing any type of downfield passing game. Quarterback Luke Del Rio averaged just 5.8 yards per pass attempt and needed 44 throws to accumulate 256 yards.
Forcing a team into primarily short-yardage throws can normally be a good way to get them off the field quickly. The UMass defense, however, squandered this opportunity. Continuing an issue from 2015, in which they allowed opponents to convert a whopping 47 percent of third-down plays, the Minutemen allowed Florida to convert nine of 17 third downs in the contest. Eventually, this inability to get off the field, coupled with the offense’s lack of production, spelled doom for the defense. In the fourth quarter, it tired and allowed Florida to score on three straight possessions, with missed tackles galore.
On Saturday, BC needs to bear this in mind if it experiences some early offensive struggles. The key will be to not let a few failed possessions lead to forced throws or attempts at big plays. While the UMass defense may have some quality series, it cannot carry that effort over the course of the game. As long as the Eagles stick to the game plan, continue to run the football, and convert manageable third downs, they should crack the Minutemen by the second half.
Returning home from Ireland to a legion of pundits grumbling about witnessing a repeat of last season, the Eagles will enjoy taking on their Massachusetts brethren. The value of spending a week away from those nagging “Program in Turmoil” storylines can’t be underestimated. With clear heads and a refreshed mindset, look for BC to use this game to set a more competitive and mature tone for the rest of the season.
Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor