Against Wake Forest, Eagles Need to Convert in Red Zone

Boston College football

What a difference two years makes.

The last time Wake Forest (1-0) journeyed to Chestnut Hill, in October 2015, Steve Addazio was reduced to a state of pure fury by the end of the game, hopping around in a circle and spiking his headset into the turf with enough force to make Rob Gronkowski blush. As the clock ran out in the fourth quarter, with Boston College (1-0) desperately trying to run a final play at the goal line, fans slumped forward in their seats, unable to process the events unfolding before them.

The 3-0 loss marked the nadir of the Eagles’ disastrous 2015 campaign, featuring everything that frustrated fans about the team’s offense. An inability to stretch the field vertically combined with a seemingly never-ending stream of power runs between the tackles neutered BC’s offensive potency on that autumn Saturday.

If you were to transport fans from that game two years into the future, they would have hardly believed the BC offense that took the field last Friday night in DeKalb, Ill. The statistics from the game read like the direct opposite of the Eagles’ offense over the past two seasons: 42 pass attempts, aggressive timeout usage and fourth-down decisions by Addazio and, most astonishingly, a relentless up-tempo offense that netted 91 total plays.

Under the leadership of redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Brown, the offense had many viewers wondering what type of offseason renaissance Addazio had undergone. But the Eagles’ head coach was quick to dispel the vision of himself as some kind of devotee of the power run game.

“Everybody thinks like that, my philosophy is just run the football. That’s not accurate,” Addazio said on Monday. “We want you to defend us horizontally, vertically, and interiorly.”

Though the Eagles’ coach did think the team could’ve taken a few more vertical shots in the passing game, by merging the power run game with jet sweeps to the perimeter and an effective short passing game, BC managed to stretch the field more than it had done since Tyler Murphy was the starting quarterback. With Brown helming the offense, Addazio finally has the personnel to move into a more diverse offensive scheme. And as the Eagles head into their ACC opener on Saturday afternoon, the focus now moves toward sustaining the improvements and maintaining a commitment to stretching the field during conference play.

While not on the same level as conference powerhouses like Clemson and Louisville, the Demon Deacons represent a strong test for BC’s new approach to the game. Entering the fourth year of the David Clawson era, Wake Forest appears to have cemented its status as a program past the darkest stages of a rebuild. After consecutive 3-9 seasons to start his tenure, Clawson’s team went 7-6 last season, beating Temple in the Military Bowl for the school’s first bowl victory since 2008. Similar to BC, Wake thrashes smaller conference schools, grinds out victories in relatively low-scoring games against high mid-majors and mid-level conference opponents, and falls far short in matchups with Top-25 teams.

Clawson enters Saturday afternoon with two qualified options to run his offense, which features lots of short passes, utilizes the read option, and operates almost exclusively from the shotgun. Senior John Wolford—the first Wake Forest quarterback to ever start four straight season openers—has been the starter for large segments of the last three years. He has a bit of a gunslinger streak—having thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in each season—and is certainly not afraid to throw the ball into tight windows. Wolford is also a capable runner, though not overly explosive, finishing 2016 with 521 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground.

Redshirt sophomore Kendall Hinton, the expected opening day starter before Wolford got the nod, returns to the Deacons after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Though he completed just 52 percent of his passes as a freshman in 2015, he added an explosive element to the team’s run game. Hinton certainly makes the read option a more dangerous play, requiring more attention as a runner than Wolford. In the season-opening win against Presbyterian, though Wolford started, both quarterbacks saw significant time and performed well, with each throwing multiple touchdown passes and running for one.

Though Clawson doesn’t want to utilize a dual quarterback system, perhaps that might be what he needs to spark an offense that has finished 101st or worse in Football Outsiders S&P+ offensive rankings in each of the last five seasons. Sprinkling in more doses of Hinton should give running backs Cade Carney and Matt Colburn a few more lanes to exploit. The duo combined to rack up 1,215 rushing yards last season, but tallied just 3.95 yards per carry and gained five or more yards on just 30 percent of their carries.

Even if the ground game stalls on Saturday, especially against a strong BC front seven, the Deacons do boast an experienced receiving corps, as every player who recorded double-digit receptions last season is returning. Receivers Tabari Hines and Cortez Lewis and tight end Cam Serigne, who all had at least 400 receiving yards last season, form a dependable cadre of pass catchers. Serigne is especially dangerous on seam routes down the middle of the field off of play action and in the red zone, where he is one of just a few weapons on a team that ranked 120th in Football Outsiders S&P+ Red Zone rankings.

Against the Eagles, expect Wake to try to create chances for long quarterback runs. Though BC tends to lock down the running backs in a spread offense, the defense has had occasional problems stopping quarterback runs off of the read option. Northern Illinois’ Ryan Graham had a 60-yard read option run after BC didn’t properly account for the quarterback. Perhaps Hinton will have a larger role in these plays. If the Eagles can completely control the Wake run game, they will make the Deacons heavily reliant on a short passing game that isn’t very conducive to lengthy drives.

Forcing short drives will give BC’s offense ample opportunities against what should still be a very sturdy Wake defense. Though the team lost three defensive tackles, three defensive backs and star linebacker Marquel Lee from a team that finished last year ranked 22nd in Football Outsiders S&P+ defensive rankings, the Deacons have the depth to restock their roster. Safety Jessie Bates III had five interceptions as a reserve last season and looks primed to take a leading role in the defensive backfield.

Under new defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel, an aggressive coach who worked at Minnesota last season, defensive ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn will get plenty of chances to hit the quarterback. The Deacons are also excellent at red zone defense, finishing 18th in points allowed per defensive red zone trip last season, a quality that enabled them to grind out wins despite an underwhelming offense.

Expect Wake to rely upon this bend-not-break strategy on Saturday. While BC’s increased tempo and emphasis on stretching the field may lead to some quick throws or jet sweeps that gain yards, those types of plays are less effective in the red zone, where available field space shrinks. Against NIU, the Eagles settled for three points three times inside the 25-yard line. And aside from their touchdown drive right before the half, they had a difficult time moving the ball forward in the red zone.

BC’s best chance to win this ballgame lies in having good red-zone efficiency. With Wake looking to grind out a low-scoring win, trading a few field goals for touchdowns could make an enormous difference against a team that traditionally struggles to score points.

And if they can take this crucial step towards translating increased pace to increased point totals, the Eagles can further their rebranding and shed the persona of a run-heavy outfit, even if Addazio continues to insist that was never his intent.    

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor