Out of the gate, even with plenty of caveats, Boston College football looked the part of one of the nation’s best turnaround stories. Carrying over its play from the latter half of the 2017 campaign, the Eagles displayed an electric, dynamic offense in wins over low-quality opponents Massachusetts, Holy Cross, and Wake Forest. Featuring a Heisman candidate in A.J. Dillon and a quarterback who looked impressive back from injury in Anthony Brown, the hype train rolled on, giving BC a top-25 ranking and plenty of momentum.
Then came the collapse. Things have never fully gone right for the Eagles under head coach Steve Addazio, and the last three weeks—culminating in Saturday’s 28-23 loss at the hands of No. 23 North Carolina State—have reflected that. BC was routed by Purdue, narrowly escaped an upset from Temple, and then, without Dillon, displayed a self-destructive, anemic offense for three quarters that resulted in the Eagles digging to0 big of a hole to climb out of. Even with special teams rising to the occasion, BC failed to fully take advantage of four turnovers, missed tackles and coverage assignments left and right, and were left searching for answers in a game that even without its star, it had a shot of winning if hadn’t taken three quarters to wake up.
While the defense spent 41 minutes on the field, a more thorough look is warranted for the 18 minutes the unit was on the bench. The offense struggled early and surged late, while special teams did a 180 and displayed prowess not yet seen through the first five weeks.
It was a tale of two offenses for BC, and unfortunately for the Eagles, the first one took up almost three quarters of playing time.
First nine drives: Three points on 33 plays for 109 yards, and five punts. (3.3 yards per play)
Final three drives: 14 points on 18 plays for 204 yards. (11.3 yards per play)
What was the difference? It came down to execution and play-calling. BC didn’t convert its first nine third downs, failing in disappointing fashion, time and time again. The first drive of the game, Brown was sacked on third down, then frustratingly threw a pass to the flat for a short gain on what was 4th-and-9.
He was off the mark on the next two third downs, then completed passes that were short of the marker on the next two. The redshirt sophomore struggled mightily in the early going—he’d likely want several of his pass attempts back, particularly the one that he overthrew a wide-open Jeff Smith in the end zone.
Sure, the offense was without an exceptionally talented player in Dillon, but the play-calling was very predictable in the early going. BC strayed from its typical pattern of running on first and second down, but settled into an arguably worst groove. It would run with Ben Glines, pass with Brown, then struggle when tasked with third-and-long. Brown would then either throw an incomplete pass or dump off to a teammate that wasn’t close to the necessary yardage.
The worst drive was also the last before a drastic change in success, though. After a huge defensive stop—a blocked field goal following a nine-minute N.C. State drive—the Eagles got the ball on their own 24-yard line. Trailing, 21-3, it was a chance to keep the momentum and cut into the lead. What did Addazio and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler opt to do? They ran the ball twice with Glines, then Brown threw an incomplete pass that Smith dropped, and punted. Just a minute and six seconds ran off the clock.
The next time BC got the ball, though, was an exercise in what the offense has the potential for, Dillon or not. With excellent field position—the drive started on their own 38—the Eagles went 62 yards on just five plays. After a first down via a Travis Levy five-yard run, BC eventually faced second-and-10 with nearly 50 yards to go. It took just two plays to go the distance. First, Brown faked a handoff to Glines going to the left, a perfect zone read that allowed him to scamper 28 yards through a wide open hole. The second play was a similar design, but this time Brown handed the ball off, and Glines darted through a gap in the opposite side for a 21-yard touchdown. The way the two plays worked in tandem was a prime example of what the Eagles excelled at the rest of the game.
The next two drives were equally impressive. Brown threw behind Walker on a deep pass but he still hauled it in for a huge gain, and eventually a fourth-down touchdown pass to Glines was the product of the running back delaying his route to the point that he was wide open. Then, on the last drive for the Eagles, they went 78 yards in just eight plays—Smith finally hauled in a long reception, the first third-down conversion on the day was remarkably on 3rd-and-16, and Tommy Sweeney had a nice diving catch. Yes, Glines ended with a fumble in a questionable call regarding forward progress, but the fact remains—BC’s offense had a pulse.
It was frustrating for Eagles fans to watch, though, as finding success in just three of your 12 drives on the game is an unsustainable trend. This traces back to the problems Loeffler’s offense had in Purdue, and how inconsistent Brown can be under center. Converting just 1-of-10 third down chances and generally looking as lifeless as something you’d poke at with a stick, BC will once again feature prominent question marks in a phase of its game—will it come out and average three yards per play in a disappointing manner, or will it run wild and move down the field with chunk yardage?
If you hadn’t watched the Eagles play at all this season and tuned into Saturday’s game, you would likely come away with the observation that Addazio’s special teams unit is quite good. The group was responsible for several game-changing plays, as it blocked a field goal, kicked a field goal (the second of the season), had several good kick returns, and punted the ball well. Quite simply, it was a shocking performance from BC’s special teams, as in each of the past five weeks, something had gone wrong.
Week 1 vs. UMass: Lengthy 73-yard return conceded, botched long snaps several times
Week 2 vs. Holy Cross: Grant Carlson punts blocked and returned for touchdowns twice, John Tessitore missed extra point
Week 3 vs. Wake Forest: Carlson punt blocked and returned for touchdown, Michael Walker muffed a punt at own 13-yard line, Tessitore missed extra point
Week 4 vs. Purdue: Interference on punt catch, Tessitore missed an extra point
Week 5 vs. Temple: Tessitore missed an extra point, Carlson botched snap, Walker fumble on kickoff returned for a touchdown
On Saturday, it was as if all those troubles had faded away. Walker showcased his on-and-off ability to stretch return coverages, as he broke free for a 33-yard kickoff return and averaged 24 yards per return. Carlson posted his highest average yet as he’s steadily improved, averaging 44.4 yards over four punts while pinning the Wolfpack on their own 14-yard line on one of them. Place kicker Colton Lichtenberg, who had been injured the past four weeks, returned and was 2-for-2 on extra points and even drilled a 33-yard field goal, the first of the season for the Eagles.
Then, on the other side of the ball, BC further exerted its will. After N.C. State went on an epic nine-minute drive from its own 26, the Eagles stalled them on the BC 2-yard line. On the ensuing field goal attempt, Kevin Bletzer got a piece of the ball, logging the Eagles’ first field goal block of the season.
Later, after squandering a prime red zone chance, the BC responded with a special teams touchdown. Mike Palmer, who also had a 22-yard punt return, blocked the Wolfpack’s punt, and the ball skipped into the end zone, where Levy fell on it for a crucial score.
It was a remarkable all-around performance that played a big part in keeping the Eagles in the game. With the way the offense had been playing, Addazio couldn’t once afford any kind of special teams meltdown, and the unit rose to the occasion.
Featured Image by Gerry Broome / AP Photo