Boston College head coach Steve Addazio espouses the theory that a football team ascends a ladder of progress throughout the season, building the skill and connectivity to peak at just the right moment. After the Eagles’ crushing 49-0 defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech in their third game, Addazio’s growth model was challenged.
“This kind of trend,” Addazio said, “got stunted in Week Three for us.”
Knocked down the ladder of perpetual progress, the Eagles (2-2, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) tumbled to the lowest rung, entering a state of reflection, an internal look at the team from the ground up. With three weeks between the Virginia Tech defeat and the Friday primetime matchup with ACC goliath Clemson, Addazio faced a daunting task: revamp his team’s confidence and its on-field product in time for its next big contest. With just two games of growth available, the head coach needed to help his players rebound from a crushing defeat and climb all the way back up the ladder, reaching a competitive ACC level.
Fortunately, the Eagles’ schedule softened at the right time, as they returned home to face two non-conference opponents. Addazio seized the moment to instill a focus on the fundamentals, a return to the basic principles of the game that had abandoned his players in the frenzied Blacksburg atmosphere. In the Eagles’ 42-10 thrashing of FCS Wagner (2-1), the team focused almost exclusively on simple execution, particularly run plays and blocking schemes.
“We went to fundamentals,” Addazio said on Monday. “I thought fundamentally, we improved.”
With the groundwork now laid, the Eagles hope to be able to execute these principles against an opponent that provides at least a modicum of resistance and creates more realistic game scenarios. That’s where this Saturday afternoon’s opponent comes into the picture. Though the University of Buffalo (1-2) has struggled thus far in 2016, including a loss to FCS Albany (4-0), the Bulls represent an actual FBS team and a level of talent that will at least push the Eagles at times.
Head coach Lance Leipold leads an experienced roster into Alumni Stadium, as the Bulls make their first trip to Boston since October 2006. Incidentally, that game set the Alumni Stadium record for lowest attendance, as just over 16,000 people turned out to see a game played in a wild rainstorm. The proclamations of an experienced roster, however, can be a bit misleading. The Bulls are quite inexperienced at the most impactful position in all of sports—Leipold has turned to redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson at quarterback.
Jackson, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 245 pounds, replaces the recently graduated Joe Licata under center. A bruising dual-threat in the mold of Cam Newton, Jackson brings a versatility to Buffalo’s offense that was absent with the pocket-passer Licata.
Though his potential is undeniable, his present performance is marked by inconsistencies and rookie mistakes. He possesses a powerful arm, yet lacks touch and sometimes throws off of his back foot. Through three games, Jackson has completed just 52.6 percent of his passes, 109th out of 121 qualifying FBS quarterbacks. Under his direction, the Bulls have the 114th ranked passing attack in the nation.
To be fair, the struggles of the aerial attack also stem from receiver inexperience. Though experienced in age, Buffalo’s top receivers, with the exception of senior Marcus McGill, have played very minor roles on the team in past years. Three of the Bulls’ top four 2015 receivers have graduated. Jackson’s top target, senior tight end Mason Schreck, hasn’t had more than 209 receiving yards in his prior three seasons with the team. With the inexperienced receivers, Jackson’s adjustment to the college game has been made more difficult, leading to an offense that only scores 17.7 points per game, a mark that only eight other teams can’t top.
Fortunately, Jackson has been able to lean on a rushing attack featuring senior Jordan Johnson and sophomore Jonathan Hawkins. Along with Jackson’s own rushing output—181 yards and two touchdowns—these two have helped Buffalo amass the nation’s 62nd ranked rushing attack. The ground game has helped stabilize the offense and at least extend drives. Johnson, a power back who rushed for 811 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015, has racked up 218 yards this season. Leipold features a lot of read-option schemes in his offense, hoping that Jackson’s involvement in the run game will open space for him in the passing game. The Bulls still have struggled to possess the ball, however, ranking 121st in the country in time of possession per game.
On Saturday, expect Buffalo to keep its offense relatively conservative, leaning on the read-option. Jackson’s size and speed combination may pose some early issues for the Eagles’ front seven, but if they maintain their gap assignments, he should be neutralized. A larger issue for the Eagles will be Jackson’s strong arm. With a secondary that has shown vulnerability in one-on-one coverage, particularly on deep routes, look for Leipold to mix some downfield shots into his game plan. Stopping these throws and forcing the Bulls to move methodically against one of the nation’s top defensive units will be one of the keys to victory.
Defensively, Buffalo has a striking dichotomy—the Bulls possess both the nation’s second-best pass defense and its second-worst run defense. Though their last game, a 23-20 overtime victory over Army, a triple option team and a unit that averages 376 rushing yards per game, skews the numbers a bit, Buffalo has been dreadful defending run plays. They rarely penetrate deep into the backfield and have issues wrapping up ball carriers. As a result, in their second game, they managed to allow Nevada—a team averaging 173.3 rushing yards per game—to amass a whopping 352 yards on the ground. Their front seven, despite the presence of senior tackling machine Khalil Hodge at linebacker, has played quite poorly. With this deficiency, the Bulls struggle to get off of the field, playing over 35 minutes of defense per game.
On the other hand, Buffalo’s secondary has been very impressive early in 2016. Led by cornerback Boise Ross, the team allows only 110 yards per game through the air. While the numbers have been compiled against a schedule including an FCS team and a triple-option offense, the Bulls defensive backfield is legit. Physical and equipped with excellent ball instincts, this unit allows defensive coordinator Brian Borland to send blitz packages, comfortable in the knowledge that his secondary can handle being put on an island.
Buffalo’s defensive dichotomy plays into BC’s Saturday gameplan for a variety of reasons. First, the struggling run defense will allow offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to dial up a heavy dosage of run plays. The Eagles can focus on executing blocks and carrying out assignments correctly, without worrying about the defense blowing up every play. On the other hand, the strong pass defense will prepare Patrick Towles, who actually ranks 119th out of 121 qualified FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage, to face strong ACC secondaries. It will help him learn to be precise and decisive with his reads.
If last week’s goal for BC was to play fundamentally, Addazio has set a new mantra for this week’s portion of the rebuild: “Playing fast and physical, with a higher level of execution.”
The rebuilding process between the Virginia Tech and Clemson games must be rapid. As a result, this week’s dry run against Buffalo will show the program’s state of growth heading into the meat of its ACC schedule. For Addazio, he must hope that two weeks has been enough to boost the team back up his ladder of progress. Otherwise, the team will fail to earn redemption in its second chance to ready for the rigors of ACC football.
Featured Image by Tom R. Smedes / AP Photo