Though it began under the guise of a Holy War, by the fourth quarter, last Saturday’s football game ended up looking more like a holy massacre. The staggering numbers allowed by the defense read like something from a Madden game on Rookie difficulty: 515 rushing yards surrendered—second most in the history of the program, seven rushing touchdowns, four runs over 45 yards, and 10.1 yards per carry.
As fans traipsed from the bleachers to the new beer vendors, Boston College (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) played out the end of a rapidly disintegrating performance. Notre Dame’s 49-20 trouncing of its Catholic rivals left many in Chestnut Hill completely floored. The fans had seen their team’s offense struggle throughout the last few seasons, but they couldn’t remember a time when their team’s vaunted run defense had been so thoroughly shredded.
But for Steve Addazio, watching tape of the game didn’t leave him with that impression.
“We lit up seven plays, seven run plays that accounted for over 300 yards,” he said on Monday. “There’s a difference between that and just getting chewed up because you can’t stop anybody or they’re blocking you, you know, you’re getting blocked. That’s a big difference.”
Addazio’s analysis wasn’t entirely off base. Certainly a few missed assignments, resulting in two runs over 60 yards by Josh Adams and two runs over 45 yards by Brandon Wimbush, helped skew the numbers tallied by the run defense. But at the end of the day, the game did continue a concerning trend displayed by the Eagles over the first three games of the season. In each contest so far, the opposing quarterback has run for more than 90 yards. The defense has had some issues defending quarterback run schemes, particularly the read option and a certain counter play Wake Forest ran several times with good success.
If the defense is playing as fundamentally sound as Addazio suggests—minus a select few chunk plays—and not merely struggling with the run game in general, this would be an excellent weekend to show that. On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles head to Death Valley to take on the No. 2 Clemson Tigers (3-0, 1-0) as 34-point underdogs, a mark the Eagles haven’t seen in the history of recorded betting lines, dating back to 1995.
Under Dabo Swinney, Clemson has roared out of the gates in 2017, with wins over No. 13 Auburn and No. 14 Louisville, harassing reigning Heisman Trophy-winning Lamar Jackson en route to a 26-point victory. Despite the offseason losses of star quarterback Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, and Wayne Gallman—the three best offensive players on last season’s team—the reigning national champions have barely missed a beat this season, sending a message to the rest of the country that they’re on the hunt for more.
Junior Kelly Bryant has replaced Watson—whose 5,222 total yards and 50 total touchdowns powered the bulk of the Tigers’ offense in 2016—as the triggerman of Swinney’s up-tempo spread attack. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Bryant can certainly handle the rigors of running the ball as part of Clemson’s scheme, showing an ability to burrow between the tackles to pick up tough yards. He has already run for 162 yards and five touchdowns on the season, proving to be an excellent red zone rushing option.
His running skills have complemented a diverse running-back-by-committee situation, which Swinney has utilized in place of the departed Gallman, who racked up 232 carries and 17 touchdowns last season. Sophomore Tavien Feaster and junior C.J. Fuller have led the pack so far, with 19 and 21 carries respectively. Feaster is a bit more explosive, while Fuller offers versatile running down the middle of the field. Additionally, doses of speedy freshman Travis Etienne, who ran for an 81-yard touchdown against Louisville, have proven to be highly effective. With these backs working in tandem with Bryant, Clemson currently ranks 18th in the FBS with 248.7 rush yards per game.
In the passing game, Bryant’s lack of experience—he had thrown just 18 career passes before this season—occasionally pops up, but on the whole, he has turned in a largely positive performance. Though he can’t read the field as well as his predecessor Watson, Bryant possesses a rifle arm, capable of flinging the ball 50 yards down the field with ease. He has completed 68.2 percent of his throws through three games, mixing a lot of quick throws to the Tigers’ playmakers with the occasional deep shot to create an efficient offense that continuously moves the ball. In fact, Clemson has converted 53.5 percent of its third downs this season, 11th in the nation, and has scored a touchdown on eight of its 10 red zone trips.
Despite the loss of Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett, and veteran possession receiver Artavis Scott, the receiving corps remains talented. Juniors Ray-Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow—Clemson’s hero in the national title game against Alabama—have led the way thus far, excelling on routes near the line of scrimmage that allow them to work into open space. If the unit has a weakness, it’s a lack of size. None of the Tigers’ top three wideouts are over 6-foot-1, a departure from last season, where Leggett and Williams offered big targets to Watson in the red zone.
On Saturday, expect Clemson to remain aggressive. After watching tape of Notre Dame’s explosion against the BC defense and after hanging 613 total yards on Louisville, the Tigers’ confidence will be very high. Look for high doses of the read option and play action passing off of similar looking plays, forcing the Eagles to defense the schemes that have troubled them in recent weeks. If BC has a chance to defy Vegas and make this a respectable game, it will need to get heavy pressure on Bryant, forcing the inexperienced quarterback to make decisions under duress with the ball, and limit the effectiveness of the Tigers’ running backs. Forcing a few turnovers is almost mandatory, and if the team hopes to win the game, it might need to score a defensive touchdown to do so.
In addition to the explosive nature of Clemson’s offense, BC’s defense has a slim margin for error on Saturday because of how difficult scoring will be for its own offense. Though star defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, linebacker Ben Boulware, and ball-hawking safety Jadar Johnson have all left for the NFL, defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ defense is as intimidating as ever, allowing just 223.3 yards per game as eighth-best in the nation.
Blessed with incredible depth along the defensive line, the Tigers lead the nation with 16 sacks, including a mind boggling 11 sacks of Jarrett Stidham in the win over Auburn. Austin Bryant had four of those sacks and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins has paired three sacks with his ability to completely shut down the inside run game. Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph have taken advantage of increased playing time to form a steady linebacking tandem. And in the secondary, safety Tanner Muse has replaced Johnson with aplomb. The Tigers’ defensive talent can power the team, even if the offense struggles, marking Swinney’s squad as a true title contender.
BC will need to minimize mistakes to have any chance of succeeding against such an opportunistic defense. An offensive line that has dealt with injuries at the center position will need to handle the massive Wilkins to establish a consistent run game. Jon Hilliman will need to build off of his 122 yard rushing performance against the Irish, his first game averaging over five yards per carry since last year’s season opener. Along with AJ Dillon, he will need to control the pace of the game, keeping BC’s offense chugging along and keeping Bryant off the field. Assuming another aerial game plan consisting of largely short passes and some play action deep shots, which will be designed to keep Anthony Brown upright against the Tigers’ front seven, the team’s success in this game will likely hinge upon the offensive line’s ability to win in the trenches on running plays.
After losing to Clemson 56-10 in the 2016 Red Bandana Game, BC enters Death Valley desperately looking to avoid a similar result. But unless the team pull off the unlikely double of controlling the game’s pace and limiting the Tigers’ explosive plays, this contest might end up resembling last week’s Holy Massacre.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor