Boston College football running back Jonathan Hilliman trotted out to the field for the first series of Saturday’s game against Louisville. After being used as a decoy on the Eagles’ opening play—an 18-yard play-action pass to Tommy Sweeney—the redshirt junior’s number was called. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler turned to Hilliman on back-to-back running plays.
On 1st-and-10, Hilliman received a handoff out of the I-formation. Instead of following his blocker up the middle, he bounced outside. A few steps later, the 220-pound back was greeted by a swarm of Cardinals, four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Seconds later, Hilliman was back on the ground again. Brown pitched the ball to Hilliman out of the backfield on second down, and the Plainfield, N.J. native sprinted toward the sideline. But there was nowhere to cut. Leading a pack of three Louisville defenders, TreSean Smith chased Hilliman down for a loss of two yards.
From that point on, Hilliman took a backseat. And his mentee—A.J. Dillon—emerged as the feature back BC fans have been looking for since Andre Williams left for the NFL in 2013.
Dillon exploded for a career-high 272 yards and four touchdowns, guiding BC to a 45-42 victory—the Eagles’ first ACC win of the year and their highest-scoring effort against a conference opponent under head coach Steve Addazio.
1) Ground and Pound
At halftime, Brown was leading BC’s rushing attack for the second week in a row. The dual-threat signal caller was on pace to finish the game with over 100 yards on the ground. Addazio called a handful of zone-reads for the redshirt freshman. Before the snap, Brown would survey the Cardinals’ defense, determining whether the backside defender was going to drop back in coverage or rush. If the defender showed blitz, Brown faked the ball to his running back, and ran it himself.
And then there were times where he had to improvise in the pocket. Brown was under duress all day. In fact, he was sacked twice. But it could have been worse if he hadn’t used his legs. Like last week, Brown showed the ability to evade pressure and make something out of nothing, juking a few guys while he was at it.
But in the second half, the Eagles all but abandoned the option and returned to old school football, Dillon’s stomping ground. Drive after drive, the 6-foot, 245-pound workhorse piled on yardage. Sometimes carrying the ball four or five consecutive plays, Dillon ran the ball into the mouth of the Louisville defense. The true freshman racked up 239 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. To put that in perspective, he had recorded just 336 yards and two touchdowns in the five games prior to Saturday.
For the most part, Dillon wasn’t flashy. Three of his four scores came on runs right through tackles. His final touchdown run, on the other hand, will be on every highlight reel Sunday morning.
Less than three minutes into the fourth quarter, Dillon ran the ball up the gut into a scrum of linemen. He found himself tangled up with Cardinals safety Chucky Williams at the line of scrimmage. Side-stepping to the left, Dillon threw Williams to the ground and kept on running. The four-star recruit showed his 4.5 speed, breaking away from the Louisville secondary for a 75-yard score.
Dillon single-handedly accounted for about half of BC’s total offense. And he practically set up the rest of it.
Earlier in the season, Addazio expressed concern that the play-action passing game wasn’t panning out the way he had planned it to in the offseason. It was supposed to be the foundation of the Eagles’ air attack. On Saturday, it finally was. Even before Dillon got going on the ground, it was working.
Instead of simply faking the handoff to the tailback and taking a five-step drop, Loeffler called for his quarterbacks to roll out of the pocket on play action. The boot leg gave Brown, and eventually Darius Wade, more time to look downfield, and occasionally room to run. Without it, Brown probably wouldn’t have connected with Thadd Smith for BC’s first points of the game.
The redshirt freshman gunslinger pretended to feed the ball to Dillon, and the entire Cardinals defense bought it. Smith made them pay. The senior snuck past a pair of frozen defensive backs, hauled in Brown’s pass, ran the ball 15 yards, made Russ Yeast miss, and jogged into the end zone.
When Dillon started to find his groove, the scheme reached another level. It was virtually impossible to defend. The bulk of the Eagles’ four-straight touchdown drives consisted of power runs and play-action passing. It especially came in handy on third and fourth downs. Rather than running the ball to move the chains, Addazio often opted to have his quarterbacks roll out and find an open receiver in the flat for an easy first down.
BC started 2-of-7 on third down, and finished 7-of-11.
3) Wade in Relief
When Brown went to the locker room with a shoulder injury early in the third quarter, it looked as if the Eagles were done for. Immediately after he went down, Colton Lichtenberg pushed a 40-yard field goal to the left of the upright. And as far as fans were concerned Wade—who had only thrown 34 passes over the past two years—had no chance at mounting a comeback against Louisville. Boy, did he prove people wrong.
Wade didn’t steal the show in any shape or form. He left that to Dillon. But he was as efficient as ever. The graduate student completed seven of his 10 pass attempts for 91 yards and, more importantly, orchestrated four consecutive touchdown drives. Thanks to Dillon’s second-half production, all Wade had to do was make basic reads on play action.
That’s easier said than done. Seeing his first meaningful action since he broke his leg in 2015, Wade looked sharp under pressure. He may not start a game this season, but he’ll always have this win.
1) Pass Protection
There is no doubt that the Eagles’ injury-riddled offensive line is improving. Dillon and Hilliman have had some gaping holes to run through the past few weeks. But when it comes to pass protection, the makeshift group is still struggling to perform at a high level.
This wasn’t really a problem at the beginning of the season, due to the fact that Brown was usually taking three-step drops and throwing short screens, slants, and curls. He didn’t need that much time to get the ball out. But now that Addazio is incorporating more shots downfield, BC’s inability to keep its redshirt freshman upright is apparent.
Brown couldn’t catch a break on Saturday. Although he was only sacked twice, he faced constant pressure from a vicious Cardinals defensive front. The pressure got to him. Brown started to force throws, miss targets, and even turn the ball over. And eventually, the hits put him out of the game.
On a crucial 3rd-and-9 in Louisville territory, Brown was forced outside of the pocket. Per usual, he rolled right. But at that moment, Chris Lindstrom lost his block, freeing up Jon Greenard. The Louisville linebacker ferociously dragged Brown down to the ground by his shoulder, sidelining the redshirt freshman.
And it wasn’t just the big guys who were missing blocks.
Midway through the first quarter, Brown snapped the ball out of the shotgun and faked a handoff to Hilliman. Ignoring the incoming rusher, Hillman booked it for the flat. The missed block resulted in a eight-yard sack and another a bruising for Brown.
2) Leaving Points on the Board
BC scored 18 more points than it had totaled in its three previous ACC games on Saturday. But the Eagles should’ve had an even bigger offensive day. Brown, who was a mere 5-of-17, missed a handful of open receivers. One throw in particular cost his team six.
Once again, Brown got the Cardinals to bite on play action. On the move, the redshirt freshman fired a 32-yard pass to the end zone. Smith was wide open, but the ball sailed over the 5-foot-9 wideout’s head.
A quarter before that, Brown gave the ball the away in Louisville territory. Feeling pressure of the edge, he stepped up in the pocket and lofted up a jump ball 30 yards to the end zone for Kobay White. The ball was underthrown and picked off by Smith.
Debatably worst of all, Lichtenberg failed to convert another kick inside of 41 yards. With the miss, the junior moved to 7-of-12 on the year. Thankfully for BC, he pulled himself together to drill a 27-yard game-winner—his second of the season—as time expired.
3) Defense Collapses in Fourth Quarter Again
Entering Saturday, the Eagles had been outscored by their opponents 57-17 in the fourth quarter. Two teams—Notre Dame and Clemson—had put up 21 points or more in the final frame. Louisville became the third.
Interestingly enough, BC shutout the Cardinals in the third quarter. At one point, defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s unit held quarterback Lamar Jackson without a completion for nine-straight pass attempts. Wyatt Ray even intercepted the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. The Eagles’ interior, comprised of Ray Smith and Noa Merritt, contained Jackson for a full period of play. It appeared as if BC had finally figured how to plug the Cardinals’ offense.
That was, until Jackson got the ball in the fourth quarter. All of a sudden, the Eagles’ secondary was getting beat and the defensive line could not stop the zone-read. Down two scores, the junior quickly rallied his team back into contention, finding Dez Fitzpatrick for a 40-yard touchdown.
Jackson went toe-to-toe with BC’s resurgent offense, leading three-straight touchdown drives in the quarter. He practically did everything. His legs were just as much of a weapon as his arm was.
If Jaylen Smith didn’t fumble on the Cardinals’ final series of the game, Jackson could have very well completed the comeback.
Featured Image by Timothy D. Easley / AP Photo