Head coach Steve Addazio took to the podium Monday afternoon to give the assembled media the same stern warning he had already issued to his Boston College (5-4, 3-3 Atlantic Coast) team.
“I think the season always presents different traps, but a lot of teams start all of a sudden looking at what’s next week or three weeks or what could happen here and what could happen there,” he said. “I told the team just let’s put blinders on, we’re in a one game season here, period.”
Though he would never admit this, the Eagles’ coach likely takes a special pleasure from the context in which this admonishment was issued. The statement itself isn’t exactly bursting with originality, as Addazio himself has issued versions of that message near the ends of seasons past.
But the external optics have certainly changed. Last season, Addazio’s press conference before the final home game centered on a 4-6 squad that had just lost consecutive blowouts against Louisville and Florida State by the combined score of 97-14. With the team needing to win its final two games to enter bowl consideration, he preached a single-minded focus on that week’s opponent—UConn—to avoid the potential of a crushing embarrassment.
This time, the Eagles are coming off of one of the most rapid in-season transformations seen in the ACC in recent years. Rattling off three consecutive wins, with at least 35 points scored, for the first time since 2002 and throttling Florida State, 35-3, in the Red Bandana game has drastically raised the team’s ceiling from where it stood in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech (7-2, 3-2) loss over Columbus Day weekend.
It’s been nearly two weeks since students stormed the field to celebrate the team’s first home conference win with school in session since 2013 and the impacts of that whirlwind three game stretch have only begun to dawn on those in Chestnut Hill. Legitimately desirable bowl games are bandied about in conversation and for the first time since the 2014 season, positive expectations for the team’s performance are building. Fans feel the restoration of hope in the air.
But if the Eagles are to capitalize on this promising run and if they want to seize the momentum and ride it for the rest of the month, they will need to follow their coach’s lead and ditch those happy thoughts of future achievement because No. 23 North Carolina State (6-3, 4-1) will bring a veritable wrecking crew to the Heights on Saturday.
In his fifth season at the helm, coach Dave Doeren has the Wolfpack out to their best start in ACC play since 2002. The team comes to Boston after two consecutive losses to the current No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings—Notre Dame (8-1) and Clemson (8-1, 6-1). Though NC State suffered a beatdown in South Bend two weeks ago, it lost a highly competitive 38-31 contest to the Tigers last weekend, indicating the team’s ability to hang with the best teams in the country.
A versatile and balanced offense, led by junior quarterback Ryan Finley, powers Doeren’s squad. Finley ranks eighth nationally in QBR and has thrown for 2519 yards, completing a career high 65.7 percent of his passes. He has thrown only three interceptions all season, showing an ability to diligently protect the ball. Finley pairs excellent accuracy on his throws with a strong arm, capable of fueling an explosive vertical passing game. That right arm has allowed Finley to complete an ACC-high 36 passes on throws at least 15 yards down the field.
Though Finley isn’t exactly fleet of foot, representing a classical pocket passer, he moves well in the pocket to find throwing lanes and his offensive line has allowed him to be sacked just 10 times in nine games, enabling him to concentrate his vision downfield.
The Wolfpack have a group of tall, physical receivers to complement their quarterback’s arm talent. 6-foot-3 sophomore Kelvin Harmon serves as Doeren’s top threat, with 51 catches for 799 yards on the season and five games of at least 100 receiving yards already on his ledger. He often wins jump balls downfield and also serves as a big target over the middle on slants, a route the Wolfpack ran very frequently against Clemson last week. Stephen Louis and Jakobi Meyers each have over 400 receiving yards on the season and both stand at least 6-foot-2.
Senior H-back Jaylen Samuels injects a dose of unpredictability into NC State’s game plan. Though just 5-foot-11, he possesses the strength to line up at tight end, as well as the agility to line up around the formation as a slot receiver or running back. He’s second on the team with 59 receptions for 480 yards, catching mainly short screens and swing passes. Samuels also plays a significant role in the Wolfpack’s rushing attack, with 51 carries for 247 yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns, involved in jet sweeps and direct snaps, as well as traditional run plays.
The remainder of NC State’s ground game is on a bit more shaky ground as Saturday approaches. Junior Nyheim Hines—an explosive running and receiving threat, who also doubles as the team’s primary return man—leads the team with 688 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry. During the Notre Dame game, Hines suffered an ankle injury that knocked him out of the contest. He returned last week but only ran eight times for 34 yards, not really looking like himself. Backup Reggie Gallaspy II, a 225 pound battering ram, has 342 rushing yards on the season, but isn’t nearly as dynamic.
These issues, coupled with Hines’ nature as more of a boom-or-bust runner has left the Wolfpack’s rushing attack inconsistent at times. Just 36.4 percent of their carries gain at least five yards, 95th in the country, and 21.9 percent of their carries are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, 102nd nationally.
On Saturday, BC will need to be dialed in across the defense. With explosive players like Samuels and Hines, the front seven must be just as dedicated in setting the edge as they were against Cam Akers and FSU, directing runs to the middle of the field or stringing them out to the sideline. They also need to find a way to make Finley uncomfortable in the pocket. Although BC’s secondary has probably been the most consistent unit on this defense, they might be playing the best passing offense they’ve seen all season. Giving Finley time to throw is an invitation to let him shred your coverage, an outcome that seems suboptimal for the Eagles. Even if Harold Landry doesn’t play, Wyatt Ray and Zach Allen have the talent to manufacture the needed pass rush.
Though not as prolific as the offense, the Wolfpack’s defense is also fairly stout. Doeren’s unit is characterized by an aggressive and physical front seven led by star defensive end Bradley Chubb. The senior ranks third nationally with 17.5 tackles for loss and has seven sacks. Linebacker Jerod Fernandez leads the team in tackles and has already forced a whopping six fumbles. With these players leading the way, NC State only allows opposing rushers to gain at least five yards 34.1 percent of the time, 24th in the country. They are extremely proficient at stopping short yardage rushing attempts.
On the other hand, NC State has a bit of a weakness in pass coverage, though some numbers may be inflated due to the skill of its opponents. It ranks 103rd in passing yardage allowed per game and rarely force turnovers, with a turnover rate ranking in the bottom 20 percent of teams nationally.
While the strategy of riding A.J. Dillon for four quarters—the freshman has averaged 32 carries over the last three games—has worked before, it likely won’t be entirely sufficient on Saturday. The Wolfpack’s front seven will limit some of his longer gains and will present a stiff challenge in short yardage situations. In addition, the run-dominant gameplan works less well when the other team has a functional offense, a major change between FSU and NC State. Bearing that in mind, Anthony Brown will need to drive the Eagles to victory in this game. With two weeks to rest his shoulder and recover from his 6-of-20 passing performance in the Red Bandana game, the redshirt freshman must connect with his receivers on Saturday. If BC’s offensive line—which has only surrendered seven sacks all year—can keep Chubb out of the pocket, Brown will have the time to exploit NC State’s secondary.
On the whole, this matchup appears to indicate a close game, one that will test the newfound identity of BC’s team. If the team can keep a businesslike attitude about them, blocking out thoughts of past failures or future expectations, it has every chance to enter the fourth quarter in a tight game with a ranked opponent.
And for Addazio, that would be further evidence this team has transformed into the product that he had long believed was waiting to come to fruition.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor