Notebook: Defense, Dillon Play Hard-nosed Football in the Steel City

boston college football

The trademark play of AJ Dillon’s Boston College football career occurred two years ago. His highlight-reel stiff arm and 75-yard sprint at Louisville turned heads and made the New London, Conn., native a household name in the world of college football. But on Saturday evening at Heinz Field, Dillon stitched together the most dominant drive of his career.

After Pittsburgh’s Alex Kessman drilled a 43-yard field goal to make it a one-score game, BC got the ball with a 26-19 lead and 5:26 remaining in the regular season finale. The Panthers had all three timeouts and the sixth-ranked rushing defense—a unit that, before this weekend, was holding opponents to an average of 92.6 yards per game. No one told Dillon.

With BC’s season on the line, the junior running back, BC’s all-time leading rusher, couldn’t be stopped. Dillon carried the ball eight plays in a row, picking up four first downs while expunging all three of Pittsburgh’s timeouts. Dennis Grosel lined up in victory formation and kneeled down three straight plays, and the Eagles clinched bowl eligibility for the sixth time in the last seven years, perhaps delaying any sort of answer to the question surrounding head coach Steve Addazio’s job status for another month.

Dillon ran wild when BC needed him most

Pittsburgh (7-5, 4-4 Atlantic Coast) has one of the best defensive lines in the country, even without edge rusher Rashard Weaver, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear this summer. As far as the ground game goes, the Panthers had limited Central Florida (22nd nationally in rushing) to 85 yards, North Carolina (43rd) to 136 yards, and Virginia Tech (54th) to 110 yards. But they struggled to slow down BC (6-6, 4-4), especially down the stretch.

Dillon rushed for just 44 yards on 14 carries in the first half. In the latter portion of play, though, the 6-foot, 250-pound running back barreled his way through the Panthers’ defense. Three and a half minutes into the third quarter, Dillon bounced outside, shed an arm tackle, and booked it down the sideline for a 61-yard, go-ahead touchdown—his longest run of the season. Then, on the final drive of the game, the junior single-handedly moved the chains, at one point stiff arming a Pittsburgh defender before carrying defensive back Jazzee Stocker past the first down marker.

As a whole, BC rushed for 264 yards. Dillon rounded out his day with 178, averaging 5.6 yards per carry—more than double the average clip that ball carriers posted against the Panthers this season. The junior now has 20 career 100-yard rushing games and 1,685 yards on the ground this season, a career best and the fourth-most in single-season program history.

BC’s pass rush made a difference, not Pittsburgh’s

Pittsburgh entered the game as the nation’s leader in sacks with 48. BC, meanwhile, ranked a meager 122nd in that department. In fact, the Eagles—who had registered just 12 sacks all season—had failed to bring down the quarterback in four separate games this year. On Saturday, though, it was BC’s defensive line that made a home for itself in the backfield.

The Eagles recorded four sacks, all in the first half, often applying pressure from both the interior and the edge. This was no better exemplified than when Isaiah McDuffie got a hold of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett’s foot on the Panthers’ first series of the day, pushing Pickett up in the pocket so that he’d be greeted by fellow linebacker Max Richardson. Toward the end of the half, defensive end Marcus Valdez used a two-hand swipe to get off the edge and blindside Pickett, jarring the ball loose in the process.

Pittsburgh recovered that fumble, unlike some of the others during its four-turnover performance, but BC clearly won the battle of the trenches. Pittsburgh only tallied one sack, as the Eagles’ vaunted O-Line bottled up its defensive front. BC came into the matchup having only allowed 10 sacks all year.

Bill Sheridan’s defense started and ended the regular season creating takeaways

Albeit inexperienced, BC’s defense has been historically bad this season. The Eagles are on pace to concede the most points per game in single-season history, and they’ve reset the BC record for most yards allowed in a single game twice this year (against Louisville and Clemson). That said, there have been flashes of potential.

Just like the first half of last week’s blowout loss to Notre Dame, BC’s defense held in the red zone—only this time, the unit didn’t regress as the game wore on. The Eagles stalled Pittsburgh’s offense, twice forcing the Panthers to settle for field goals inside the BC 20-yard line. The Eagles also created four takeaways, the most they’ve notched since their Week 1 win over Virginia Tech. Vinny DePalma—who filled in for an injured John Lamot (concussion)—got it all started with a strip in the open field. All in all, BC recovered three fumbles and picked off one pass—more importantly, however, the Eagles scored 12 of their 26 points off turnovers.

Aaron Boumerhi and Danny Longman had themselves very different games

Aaron Boumerhi came into Saturday having converted just eight of his 13 field goal attempts this season. But in the Pittsburgh cold, the Temple transfer was as consistent as one can be: Boumerhi drilled all four of his field goal attempts, boosting his kicking percentage to 70.6 for the year. The last BC kicker to make four field goals in a game? Nate Freese in 2011. Boumerhi’s teammate Danny Longman, on the other hand, did more harm than good on special teams.

Longman, who has now served as the Eagles’ kickoff specialist for the greater part of two years, booted the ball out of bounds on two kickoffs during Saturday’s game. Fortunately for BC, neither cost the team points. Still, this has been a recurring problem for Longman. The sophomore has been penalized for kicking the ball out of bounds 10 times this year—according to The Football Database, Longman and UCF’s Daniel Obarski were the only two kickers with eight or more such infractions in the country heading into the weekend. 

Kenny Pickett held his end of the bargain, and Dennis Grosel did his part too

Pickett has had his fair share of issues this season, but at times he’s carried the Pittsburgh offense—and it was one of those games on Saturday. Even without Taysir Mack, the Panthers’ leading receiver, the junior orchestrated a potent passing attack. Time and time again, Pickett went back to the middle of the field, finding Jared Wayne, Maurice Ffrench, and Shocky Jacques-Louis for big gains. The problem was, he didn’t have a run game to lean on, which led to the four sacks and the red zone struggles.

On the other side of the field, Grosel didn’t rival Pickett’s 30 completions or 323 passing yards, but he did make some clutch throws. After starting the game 1-of-7 for 20 yards, the redshirt sophomore bounced back to hit eight of his last 12 pass attempts for 103 yards and a score. Not only did he connect with a wide-open Hunter Long for a first-half touchdown, but he also converted a 4th-and-4 and back-to-back third downs to help the Eagles knock in their final two field goals of the evening. Tack on 10 carries and a season-best 51 rushing yards, and Grosel had himself a respectable turnover-free performance.

Featured Image by Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Andy Backstrom
About Andy Backstrom 442 Articles
Andy is the managing editor of The Heights. He is from the suburbs of Philly, but has been an Arizona Cardinals enthusiast since the first grade. Every so often, he'll replay Super Bowl XLIII on Madden to exact revenge on his father's beloved Steelers. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyHeights.