Eagles Enjoy New Challenge Against Pocket-Passing Central Michigan

Boston College football

The beauty of sports can sometimes be its downfall. Fans convince themselves that the next week will finally be different from the proceeding weeks, that next week will be the week when it all clicks. Willingly opening themselves up to this likely heartbreak, they get invested in every early lead, despite knowing the likelihood of a failed final result that is engrained in the logical recesses of their brain. For Boston College (1-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) fans, the feeling is all too familiar, a déjà vu of sorts.

Though the process to the endpoint differed, last week’s results bore a striking similarity to the previous week’s. One week after a 14-13 third quarter deficit mushroomed into a 49-20 rout at the hands of Notre Dame (3-1), the Eagles entered the fourth quarter tied 7-7 with No. 2 Clemson (4-0, 2-0), only to suffer a fatigue-driven collapse en route to a 34-7 loss.

Whereas the Irish gashed BC with huge chunk runs, averaging over 10 yards per carry, Clemson condemned the Eagles to death by a thousand cuts. Forced to defend 58 run plays, with few chunk plays until late in the fourth, the defense ran ragged, springing holes at the worst possible moment, marring an otherwise impressive afternoon. The linebacking core, depleted after injuries to Connor Strachan and Max Richardson, held up for a while with additional safety help, but eventually succumbed to its inexperience and left running lanes that the Tigers exploited.

“That’s the best we’ve played against that Clemson team since I’ve been here,” head coach Steve Addazio said on Monday. “Up until about five minutes into that fourth period there was only a couple of real plays that we really had an issue with.”

Eventually, despite injury and experience issues that head coach Steve Addazio mentioned again this week, the hope is that the defense grows into a unit that can consistently play at a high level at all times, without erasing a few select data points. Because absent drastic improvement from an offense piloted by a redshirt freshman quarterback, that appears to be the Eagles’ path to meaningful victories within the ACC.

Fortunately for Addazio, his team gets another opportunity this week to further its growth toward that goal, while matching up against a team that doesn’t quite stack up to BC’s recent level of competition.

Making its first trip to Chestnut Hill since 2009, head coach John Bonamego’s Central Michigan (2-2, 0-1 Mid-Atlantic) team has lost two straight by a combined score of 72-31. Despite handily defeating the nation’s worst Power Five team, Kansas, 45-27, the Chippewas have struggled as their schedule has grown more difficult, losing games against Syracuse and conference rival Miami (Ohio).

For the most part, Central Michigan boasts a relatively experienced roster, particularly on offense, where the team’s top five 2016 receivers all returned, as did five offensive linemen who made at least eight starts in 2016. The one exception to this rule is at quarterback, where Shane Morris—a graduate transfer from Michigan—has replaced program legend Cooper Rush. Now the third-string quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Rush threw for nearly 13,000 yards in his four years at Central Michigan and provided the team with a gifted pocket passer.

Much to the delight of BC—who has allowed the opposing signal caller to run for over 90 yards in each of the first four games—Morris isn’t much of a runner either, though he is certainly mobile enough to complete the rollout throws that make up a decent portion of Bonamego’s offense. The lefty passer has a strong arm and usually makes sound, quick reads with the ball, but can sometimes hurt himself with a tendency to try fitting balls into miniscule windows or to attempt difficult passes with a defender dragging him to the ground.

Against Kansas, Morris completed 28-of-37 passes for a whopping 467 yards and five touchdowns, dominating the nation’s least imposing Power Five team. But across his other three starts, he has thrown just four touchdowns to five interceptions, failing to complete more than 51 percent of his passes in any of those games.

To be fair, Morris’ receiving corps now looks much more different from the group he believed he would inherit over the summer. Senior tight end Tyler Conklin is out infinitely with a broken foot suffered before the season—depriving Central Michigan of its best red zone target—and explosive senior wideout Corey Willis, who led the Chippewas with 1,087 receiving yards last season, broke his hand two weeks ago—after recording 16 catches in the first two games.

Seniors Mark Chapman, who currently has 377 receiving yards and is now the number one target for Morris, and Eric Cooper have attempted to fill the void, but on the whole, the group now lacks both a serious deep threat and a reliable target down the middle of the field. With this makeshift group catching passes, Central Michigan has converted just 27.7 percent of its third downs, 123rd in the nation, and has only scored a touchdown on half of its red zone trips.

Sophomore running back Jonathan Ward has claimed the featured role in the backfield, racking up 62 carries for 295 yards over the season’s first month. He’s an explosive back that can quickly hit creases on the Chippewas shotgun running concepts, but can often be stopped for minimal gain with the lack of blockers around him. He also has 14 catches for 159 yards, giving Morris a safety blanket on routes and checkdowns near the line of scrimmage.

Against the Eagles, expect Central Michigan to attempt to get its short passing game clicking. It offers them a way to move the ball without needing to block the Eagles’ vicious defensive line and prevents Morris from holding onto the ball long enough to make poor decisions. Limiting errors is huge for the Chippewas, as they have committed 10 turnovers already on the season, tied for 119th in the nation—ironically with BC. Aside from a few deep shots, expect Morris to be limited to short rollout throws or screen plays to Ward. If Ward can get any traction in the ground game, which should be difficult against a BC defense that finally doesn’t need to devote tons of resources to monitoring quarterback runs, it could provide the Chippewas with an avenue towards a very close game.

Defensively, Bonamego’s squad has been a mixed bag. Led by senior cornerbacks Josh Cox and Amari Coleman, the team has already picked off nine passes this season, after intercepting 12 all of last season. But when Central Michigan fails to take the ball away, ugliness ensues. The team ranks 109th in pass yards allowed per game and 92nd in rush yards allowed per game. After ranking 125th in Stuff Rate—the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage—in 2016, the Chippewas lost their top two defensive tackles in the offseason, leaving them extremely vulnerable to runs between the tackles, something that no doubt makes Addazio’s eyes light up when he sees it on film.

Given Bonamego’s ball-hawking secondary and BC’s recently increasing usage of AJ Dillon, expect Addazio to stick with the more run-focused approach he utilized in Death Valley. Dillon and Jon Hilliman should each have rather effective days, barring any collapses along the offensive line. Anthony Brown can have an efficient, if not spectacular outing, by making short, simple throws and continuing to take advantage of bootlegs and rollouts that allow him to only read half of the field. If Brown ends up throwing upwards of 40 passes, the game will have likely been much closer than anticipated.

Favored by 10 points—Vegas’ most extreme vote of confidence for BC this season—the Eagles should enter Saturday afternoon expecting to win and focused on continuing their journey along the path towards a complete defensive effort. Avoiding any sugarcoating, this game represents a must-win for the program. Another non-conference loss could put bowl hopes in serious jeopardy.

And regardless of their location on the development chart, soon only results will matter for the Eagles.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor