Eagles Face Tough Challenge in Hokies’ Run Defense

Boston College football

Sometimes, the more you experiment with change, the more you feel that it’s best to stick with what you know. Abrupt shifts in strategy or behavior can certainly bring about decent results, but they also frequently lead to you outsmarting yourself and torpedoing your own efforts.

For one game at least, Steve Addazio appears to have adopted this mindset. With redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Brown battling a sore shoulder and coming off of a game in which he completed just 14-of-30 passes for 133 yards, the head coach opted to return Boston College (2-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) football’s offense to its default state over most of the prior four seasons.

As the rain fell on a cold, damp Saturday in Alumni Stadium, the Eagles paired a slightly increased tempo with a hefty dose of power running to easily grab a 28-8 win over Central Michigan. Freshman AJ Dillon had the best rushing effort of his brief career—120 yards on 25 carries—and Jon Hilliman added 23 rushes for 89 yards and three total touchdowns. BC ran the ball 53 times, compared to Brown’s 21 pass attempts, which generated a mere 85 yards. It was easily the team’s most effective rushing performance of the season, with a rapidly coalescing offensive line able to effectively create lanes for the backs.

“Our run game is improving incrementally because we’re starting to get a little more cohesiveness,” Addazio said on Monday. “This might be the first week that I’m hoping we can have five guys working together all week long that will be the starters in the game.”

When paired with a stellar effort from Michael Walker and a terrific performance from the Eagles’ underrated pass defense—ranked 12th in the nation in yards allowed per game and featuring the nation’s interception leader, Lukas Denis—this brute force offensive gameplan made for a complete football game, even if it wasn’t all that entertaining to those in attendance.

Unfortunately for BC, it’s unlikely that they will be able to maintain this gameplan into the bulk of its conference schedule, as the strategy works only against teams whose offenses pose a limited threat, like the Chippewas. It becomes increasingly difficult to grind out victories through the ground game when the opponent has an explosive offense.

On Saturday night, Justin Fuente’s No. 16 Virginia Tech (4-1, 0-1) team will roll into Alumni as the first such team on BC’s remaining schedule. Now in his second year in Blacksburg, Fuente has firmly established control over the direction of the program after inheriting it from the legendary Frank Beamer. Last season, he led the Hokies to a 10-4 record—the school’s first 10-win season since 2011—and a victory over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. And despite significant turnover among its offensive skill position players, Virginia Tech won its first four games this season, before falling 31-17 to No. 2 Clemson (5-0, 3-0) last Saturday night.

With the surprise departure of star quarterback Jerod Evans to the NFL, 2017 was pegged to be a slow year for the Hokies’ offense, with the team losing Evans’ 3552 passing yards, 846 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns. But redshirt freshman Josh Jackson—the first freshman quarterback to start the season opener for the Hokies since Michael Vick in 1999—has drastically revised expectations around the team.

At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Jackson is the prototypical signal caller for Fuente’s offense, blessed with a strong arm and a sturdy frame capable of handling designed quarterback runs between the tackles. Through five games, he has completed 65.4 percent of his passes and thrown 12 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He looks to get the ball out of his hands quickly, putting the Hokies’ offensive playmakers in space, and deftly operates the team’s play action passing game. Additionally, Jackson leads Virginia Tech with 41 rushing attempts. In the season opening victory over West Virginia, he totaled 101 yards on the ground.

Complementing Jackson in the ground game, serving as the other half of a scheme that features a good deal of read option and jet sweep looks, is a true running back-by-committee scenario. Four Hokies running backs have at least 24 carries for 133 yards over the first five games, with none having more than 38 attempts. Junior Travon McMillian—the Hokies’ top running back the last two seasons—leads the bunch with 191 rushing yards. While not overly explosive, he knows the team’s scheme well and takes advantage of holes generated by defensive attention on Jackson.

When he looks to the air, Jackson sees a receiving corps decimated by turnover. With veterans Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges—along with their 1785 total receiving yards and 14 touchdowns—moving on to the NFL, there isn’t much depth behind Cam Phillips. The senior wideout ranks third in the nation with 597 receiving yards and has five touchdowns. Jackson likes to put the ball in his hands frequently, utilizing quick throws to the edge to accomplish this. True freshman Sean Savoy has added 198 yards as a secondary receiving target, but along with the rest of his teammates, remains far behind Phillips in the aerial pecking order.

Against BC on Saturday, expect Virginia Tech to exercise caution in the passing game, much like Clemson did against the Eagles two weeks ago. With Denis patrolling the secondary and BC more effectively mixing zone and man coverage, it has become more difficult to connect on deep passes against this team. Look for heavy doses of the option run game, a scheme that has befuddled the Eagles this season. Fuente will want to test the communicative abilities of BC’s injury-ravaged linebacking group, forcing them to account for Jackson at all times. If Jackson has success on the ground, as other quarterbacks have had against BC—the team surrendered over 90 rushing yards to the opposed quarterback in each of its first four games—the Hokies’ offense should be able to successfully move the ball against the Eagles without turnovers. On the other hand, a few well-timed turnovers might be necessary for BC to have a shot at winning this ball game.

On the other side of the ball, Fuente continues to be grateful for the presence of defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Since he took command of the unit in 1995, Virginia Tech has had a top-30 defense by Football Outsiders’ S&P+ metric in all but four of those seasons.

This season is no different. The team’s run defense has been particularly stout, ranked 29th in the country in yards allowed per game and surrendering a paltry 3.23 yards per carry. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds—who ranked 6th among FBS linebackers with 18.5 tackles for loss in 2016—and Andrew Motuapuaka lead a physical interior unit. The two rushing touchdowns scored by Clemson on Saturday were the first ones Virginia Tech had allowed all season.

Through the air, with junior safeties Terrell Edmunds and Mook Reynolds providing support in the deep zones, the Hokies play stifling man coverage. Occasionally, you can catch them in a coverage blunder and steal a big play, but for the most part, this unit is aggressive and doesn’t surrender many yards after the catch. As a result, the Hokies have allowed opponents to convert third downs just 26.8 percent of the time, 13th in the FBS.

Bearing this in mind, expect the Eagles to have a much more difficult time running the ball against Foster’s defense than they had last weekend. Hilliman and Dillon should still see a decent level of touches—especially in an effort to keep the team from extremely quick drives—but it would take a massive step forward from the offensive line for the pair to repeat their numbers from the Central Michigan game. Staying out of 3rd-and-long scenarios will be crucial for Addazio’s team. Allowing Foster the chance to blitz Brown in high-pressure situations will drastically harm the team’s chances of accomplishing anything meaningful on offense.

In recent years, Columbus Day weekend football has been a house of horrors for BC. Last season, Clemson stomped the Eagles 56-10 in the Red Bandana game and in 2015, the Eagles suffered that infamous 3-0 loss against Wake Forest. Additionally, when these two teams matched up last September, the Hokies whooped BC 49-0 in Blacksburg.

Addazio insists that he refuses to allow blowouts of the past to linger in his thoughts.

A lot of people got beat,” he said. “Do I think you sit there and dwell on a game? No. I mean it is what it is.”

Saturday will offer a chance to move forward from the sting of those defeats. And with any luck, that will be one habit that the Eagles don’t fall back upon.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor