BC Defense Primed to Slow Struggling UConn

Connecticut quarterback Donovan Williams passes the ball during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Temple, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

On Saturday afternoon, Boston College football (4-6, 1-6 Atlantic Coast) will engage in the time-honored tradition of Senior Day. Four years of blood, sweat, and tears culminate in one final appearance in front of the home crowd. Usually a family-oriented celebration of contributions to the program, Senior Day often gives off a wistful and nostalgic vibe. There is a profound sadness at the impending loss of men who meant a great deal not only on the field, but also in the locker room and around campus.

For the Eagles, however, there is a different kind of sadness hovering over their Senior Day. On a day where the team will retire Matt Ryan’s No. 12 jersey at halftime, the fans’ nostalgia will be directed toward a time when scoring multiple touchdowns didn’t make them do a double take. Coming off of a 45-7 loss at the hands of No. 18 Florida State, the Eagles have now lost 202-24 to the four ACC opponents who were ranked as of last week. On Monday, Steve Addazio described this latest non-competitive affair as bluntly as possible.

“We played a good team in a tough venue,” he said. “We didn’t play well.”

Much as he did for the spate of explosive touchdowns conceded by his secondary, BC’s head dude had a theory for these massive defeats.

We attract people’s best games, their best shots, because people respect the fact that our team is going to play hard,” Addazio said following the FSU game.

Though there is absolutely no way to verify the validity of that statement, the Eagles do have some good fortune this week. In renewing a local rivalry with the University of Connecticut (3-7, 1-6 American Athletic)—the two teams last played in 2004—BC faces an opponent whose “best shot” still shouldn’t be enough for a victory. In fact, the Eagles will enter Saturday afternoon’s contest favored by a touchdown, a comforting fact for a team that has only scored one touchdown in each of its last two games.

After earning a bid to the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2015, the Huskies have taken a major step back in Bob Diaco’s third season at the helm. UConn ranks dead last in the country in scoring offense, averaging a paltry 16.5 points per game, a struggle with which BC fans can empathize. The Huskies are the only FBS team without a touchdown in the first quarter this season and are coming off of back-to-back blowout losses to East Carolina and Temple, losing by a combined 62-3 score.

In fact, UConn has the second-lowest touchdown rate in the country. According to Football Outsiders, only the lowly Rutgers offense scores touchdowns less frequently. They’ve pretty much struggled in every aspect of offense, ranked 99th in passing offense and 125th in rushing offense by Football Outsiders’ S&P system. The Huskies can’t generate long drives or quick, explosive plays—ranking 124th in Football Outsiders’ IsoPPP + metric, which tracks explosive play capabilities—largely because their offensive line struggles to hold blocks on run plays or maintain a clean pocket on passing plays. Only three teams have more plays that end in tackles for loss per game. About the only thing UConn does well on offense is maintain possession of the ball—the Huskies rank fifth in the nation in turnover rate.

With the season slipping away and the team clearly lacking the characteristics of bowl-eligible teams, Diaco decided to go with a quarterback change before the game against Temple. Junior Bryant Shireffs, a two-year starter, was benched in favor of freshman Donovan Williams. Shireffs was a capable dual-threat signal caller, throwing for 2,010 yards and running for 326 yards in 2015. But in a program looking for its first star at the quarterback position since Dan Orlovsky, Shireffs’ potential had already been explored.

Though Williams was expected to redshirt this season, Diaco said that he actually would’ve been inserted as the starter earlier in the season if he hadn’t sustained an injury in practice early in October. At 6-foot-4 and with good speed, Williams brings a stronger, more athletic presence to the quarterback runs that UConn likes to use on offense.

In the shutout loss to Temple, with a simplified offense, he completed 12-of-21 pass attempts for just 69 yards. Williams also added 66 yards on the ground, including a 43-yard scamper down the middle of the field. Though undeniably raw in reading defenses and lacking touch on his throws, Diaco is starting him for his high ceiling.

“[Williams’] ceiling is as high as any player at his position in America,” the coach said last week.

On the ground, Williams is aided by junior running back Arkeel Newsome, whose 549 rushing yards lead the team. Though he stands just 5-foot-7, Newsome is a bundle of energy and physicality, weighing a solid 185 pounds and having great burst through the few holes that his offensive line creates for him. He also contributes in the passing game, particularly on screens, ranking third on the team in receiving yards.

The main target for Williams through the air is senior wideout Noel Thomas. With 87 receptions and 1,090 yards, Thomas is responsible for over half of the Huskies receiving yards this season. He has good deep speed, but will now run a lot of shorter routes as part of UConn’s simplified passing attack. For a young quarterback, this top-flight receiver is a calming safety blanket.

On Saturday, expect the UConn offense to struggle against the Eagles in ways similar to Buffalo. With a new signal caller, Diaco will likely call for a lot of early down run plays. Even if he uses heavy doses of quarterback runs—which have given the Eagles fits over the last few weeks—the Huskies’ offensive line will not be able to handle the BC front seven. Expect UConn to spend the majority of the afternoon facing third and long scenarios. Here, the pass rush can get after Williams and force the already unsure freshman into rushed decisions. The secondary must blanket Thomas throughout the game, daring any other receiver to beat them. Though they will likely not concede many long drives to such a weak offense, due to their own subpar offense, the BC defense will need to force a few turnovers to give Patrick Towles and Co. a field position advantage that can lead to points.

On the other side of the ball, UConn is only slightly better. Though senior safety Obi Melifonwu is a stabilizing presence in the secondary—with four interceptions and 83 tackles—the Huskies rank 118th in pass defense. A big piece of this is an inability to force turnovers or pressure the quarterback—UConn ranks 105th in turnover rate and 118th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate.

The Huskies have had good success against the run this season, ranking 32nd nationally in run defense. They have a physical front seven that doesn’t give up large holes often and has the strength to penetrate into the backfield before a run play has a chance to fully develop. They excel in short yardage situations, ranking 27th nationally in Football Outsiders’ Stuff Rate, which measures the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, with two yards or less to go, that achieve a first down or touchdown. This stout front seven is a big reason why the Huskies rank 11th in defensive red zone efficiency.

On Saturday, given the recent struggles of the Eagles’ rushing attack and the nature of UConn’s front seven, this game is one final chance for Towles to prove himself as something other than a disappointment. To stave off Darius Wade, he will need to do significantly better than completing 3-of-11 pass attempts. Since the Huskies don’t often pressure the quarterback, Towles has no excuse if he struggles against this defense. Likewise, the game presents a matchup that the Eagles’ receivers must take advantage of. Jeff Smith needs to put his drops behind him and focus on being a reliable target down the field.

Despite the bleak nature of the program, bowl eligibility is shockingly still in play for the only ACC program with six conference losses. Though six wins guarantees the Eagles a spot in a bowl game—and likely allows Addazio to keep his job for next season—as few as five wins might give them the opportunity to go bowling. When there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill bowl slots, five-win teams are selected by their rankings in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, a ranking in which BC stands favorably.

With that in mind, Saturday’s game is a must win for the Eagles. It’s a fact that hasn’t been lost on Addazio.

“We have to win on Saturday for anything to even be a conversation,” he said on Monday.

Shortly after saying that, Addazio left the press conference. And really, there wasn’t much left to say. His closing statement can only come between the lines.

Featured Image by Elise Amendola / AP Photo