At Virginia, Mendenhall’s Defense Awaits Dillon, BC

Boston College football

For Boston College (3-4, 1-3 Atlantic Coast) football, it’s fair to say that it all came together last week. And the results were indeed beautiful.

Whether inspired by the belief Steve Addazio expressed in his press conference after a Columbus Day weekend loss to then No. 16 Virginia Tech (5-1, 1-1) or driven by a supremely disappointing effort by a talented Louisville (4-3, 1-3) squad, BC rode an entirely unexpected second half offensive outburst to a 45-42 upset win. Despite trailing 21-14 at the half and losing starting quarterback Anthony Brown in the third quarter, after the redshirt freshman reaggravated his nagging shoulder injury, the Eagles exploded for 28 straight points to completely flip the narrative of the game.

Freshman running back A.J. Dillon carried the ball 25 times after Darius Wade was forced under center, finishing with 39 carries for a whopping 272 yards—third most in a single game in BC history and a team freshman record. According to Pro Football Focus, he amassed 199 of those yards after contact, constantly churning his legs and plowing through anyone foolish enough to try bringing him down him with an arm tackle.

In keeping with the convincing Andre Williams impersonation, Dillon also added four touchdowns, including a 75-yard run that began with a stiff arm so vicious that Louisville safety Chucky Williams might still be peeling his dignity off the turf at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. With Jon Hilliman running for just 34 yards on 19 carries over the last two weeks, it appears that the former Michigan recruit’s stock is rapidly rising, taking the Eagles’ offense along for the ride.

“When guys play like A.J. Dillon played, [it] makes you a smarter coach,” Addazio said on Monday.    

While the results from last Saturday vindicated Addazio’s prediction, the team still needs to show it can consistently produce that effort, especially against teams that don’t beat themselves, as Louisville did. An offensive line that has struggled to open creases in the run game for much of the season must show that its dominant effort last week—where Chris Lindstrom earned ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors—can be replicated. The defense—which surrendered 42 points and showed it usual schematic issues against mobile quarterbacks, in addition to succumbing to the greatness of Lamar Jackson—must prove it can maintain its focus and keep BC in close games, assuming the offense doesn’t suddenly start scoring 45 points per game.

This Saturday, the Eagles’ face a stiff road test in Charlottesville, where they will take on the surprising Virginia Cavaliers (5-1, 2-0). In its second year under former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the program has been reinvigorated, poised for its first season with more than five wins and a bowl appearance since 2011. Though its conference wins have come against underwhelming Duke (4-3, 1-3) and North Carolina (1-6, 0-4) squads, Virginia is a complete football team, with consistent performances on both sides of the ball, ranking 34th in the FBS according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings.

Offensively, though Virginia doesn’t play at a particularly fast tempo or have an excess of explosive plays—Football Outsiders’ IsoPPP metric, which serves as a measure of a team’s explosive capabilities, ranks the Cavaliers 113th nationally—it has little trouble moving the ball consistently. 48.6 percent of the team’s drives that have achieved at least one first down have ended in a touchdown, 21st in the FBS, and it converts 45.6 percent of its third downs. Virginia’s lack of tempo, combined with its success in sustained drives, means that its offense controls the ball for large stretches of the game. The Cavaliers’ 35:13 average time of possession ranks fourth nationally.

Quarterback Kurt Benkert powers Mendenhall’s steady offense. A pure pocket passer, the senior has completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 1680 yards, with 15 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His limited mobility prevents Virginia from adding the ever popular read option to its playbook in large doses—much to BC’s relief—but otherwise, the Cavaliers’ play selection varies greatly. Benkert will be under center more than most of the other ACC quarterbacks BC has faced thus far, adding effectiveness to the play action game. Though he has touchdown passes of 63, 74 and 81 yards this season and possesses a strong arm, a large percentage of his completions are on either short or intermediate routes.

After losing star running back Taquan Mizzell—who led the team with 940 rushing yards in 2016, along with 52 receptions for 404 yards, and had seven total touchdowns—Virginia has had to redistribute a high volume of its offensive touches this season. Slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus has proven to be the biggest beneficiary. Though just 5-foot-8, the explosive junior leads the team with 43 catches for 448 yards, in addition to having 130 rushing yards. He has had as many as 12 catches in a single game, moving around the formation and getting the ball in space in a variety of ways, such as screens and jet sweeps. Senior Doni Dowling has added 389 receiving yards and Andre Levrone serves as the offense’s primary deep threat, averaging 25.1 yards per catch.

In the backfield, junior Jordan Ellis has become the feature back, recording over 20 carries in all but one game this season. He ran for a career high 136 yards in last Saturday’s win against UNC, but has generally struggled to be explosive. Virginia’s run game has picked up five or more yards on just 32.1 percent of its attempts, a paltry 121st in the nation.

On Saturday, expect BC to continue giving Mendenhall’s team trouble on the ground. While it has failed miserably at defending running quarterbacks, the Eagles’ defense has largely handled running backs well, despite the injuries to its linebacking corps. Given Benkert’s lack of speed, Virginia will likely not stress BC this way, leading to a tough day at the office for Ellis. As a result, Benkert will need to beat the Eagles through the air. Look for plenty of short passes, to neutralize Zach Allen and Harold Landry and to also get Zaccheaus out in space. BC will need to stop Virginia on third down or it could be on the field for rather long stretches of the game.

Defensively, Virginia ranks 27th nationally in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings. They are incredibly efficient at getting opposing offenses off the field, allowing only 26.8 percent of third downs to be converted against them, seventh nationally. Their pass defense has been tremendous. Ranking 10th in yards allowed per game and with nine interceptions to their credit, the Virginia secondary is talented. It is a big reason why the Cavaliers have only allowed opponents to score points on eight of their 14 trips into the red zone, the best efficiency in the nation. Senior safety Quin Blanding patrols the deep areas of the field and is aggressive helping in the box against run plays, while freshman cornerback Brenton Nelson has three interceptions.

Against the run, Virginia is adept at short yardage situations, allowing conversions on just 56.2 percent of third or fourth down runs with one or two yards to gain, 22nd in the FBS. Despite this, they have had some issues with explosive run plays, allowing opponents to pick up at least five yards on 39.1 percent of their carries, 84th in the nation.

With this set of matchups and Brown’s shoulder issues, expect BC to minimize risky pass plays and be content with using short play action throws set up by an emphasis on the power run. Though it faded a bit from the Eagles’ focus early in the season, given the opponents and personnel issues the team has dealt with recently, it has made a comeback on the shoulders of Dillon. Though he already had 39 carries a week ago, BC will need another workhorse effort out of their standout freshman for the offense to put this team in position to win the game. The team must take pains to avoid any third and long scenarios, which are deadly against Virginia’s defense.

Despite all the early season hype about a more balanced offense, recent circumstances have led the Eagles to fall back upon a prior strategy that has been highly criticized, even with its successes in 2013 and 2014. If Dillon can credibly fill the Williams role in that scheme, there is a chance that the team has turned a corner and could even pursue a bowl game.

But on the more reasonable chance that, though a workhorse running back, Dillon falls a bit short of this high benchmark, Addazio might find out the hard way that the beautiful is often transient and hard to recapture once it’s gone.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor