Go Figure: How BC Reached the Birmingham Bowl

When Boston College football walked away with a 35-28 season-opening win over Virginia Tech on Aug. 31, no one quite knew what to expect from the 2019 Eagles. A BC defense that had lost eight starters in the offseason forced five turnovers against what was predicted to be a resurgent Hokies team. And, as expected, a Mike Bajakian-led offense took a step in the right direction, featuring a more accurate and explosive Anthony Brown.

Two weeks later, however, the narrative surrounding the Eagles completely changed—and so did seventh-year head coach Steve Addazio’s job status. A 48-24 loss to Kansas, which snapped the Jayhawks’ 48-game road losing streak to Power Five opponents, once again returned Addazio to the hot seat. In what was a fittingly nightmarish performance for the Eagles on Friday, Sept. 13, Kansas gashed BC for 329 rushing yards, exploiting missed tackles and defensive breakdowns all night.

From that point forward, the season took its twists and turns. Brown suffered a season-ending left ACL tear in Week 6, former preferred walk-on Dennis Grosel took over, and, for the most part, the offense sustained its success, thanks to the bruising tandem of AJ Dillon and David Bailey. Meanwhile, Bill Sheridan’s defense never really found its identity. The Eagles reset the program’s single-game record for most yards allowed twice—first at Louisville (664), then at Clemson (674)—and are currently on pace to allow the most points per game (31.7) in team history.

Remarkably, though, it was the defense that bookended the regular season with a win, courtesy of another takeaway frenzy. The Eagles forced five fumbles, recovered three, and picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, winning the turnover battle 4-0. Dillon carried BC to victory, rounding out the 26-19 win with eight straight runs and four first downs. For the sixth time in the past seven years, Addazio’s Eagles clinched bowl eligibility, but that achievement wasn’t enough to save the head coach’s job.

Addazio was fired, Brown entered the transfer portal, Dillon declared for the 2020 NFL Draft, Bajakian was hired away to be Northwestern’s offensive coordinator, and Jeff Hafley was chosen to replace Addazio as the new face of the program—all within two weeks. Now, interim head coach Rich Gunnell and BC are heading to the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl to take on a No. 21 Cincinnati team that’s only lost to No. 2 Ohio State and No. 17 Memphis this season. Regardless of BC’s average 6-6 record, 2019 has been anything but mundane for the Eagles—here’s how they ended up in Birmingham, by the numbers.

Early-Season Takeaways Masked Defensive Issues

BC created 25 turnovers in 2018 and, for the second season in a row, boasted a defensive back (Hamp Cheevers) with seven interceptions. It appeared as if the new-look Eagles defense would retain those ball hawking tendencies this fall—at least, judging from the first two games of play. After all, BC recorded seven takeaways during that span, often bending but rarely breaking.

It all started with a Tate Haynes cornerback blitz in the second quarter of the season opener. The redshirt sophomore defensive back flew through a gap in the trenches and knocked the ball loose from Hokies quarterback Ryan Willis, setting up the go-ahead Eagles touchdown. Additionally, BC intercepted Willis three times, including twice in the red zone. The following week, Sheridan’s unit picked off Richmond’s Joe Mancuso on two separate occasions. The Eagles’ early-season interceptions were both plentiful and acrobatic. Nolan Borgersen and Brandon Sebastian, in particular, showed the ability to go up and get it back-to-back weeks.

That said, the highlight-reel takeaways obscured BC’s most significant defensive issues. The Eagles conceded an average of 403 yards against the likes of Virginia Tech—which logged just 5.1 yards per play before Hendon Hooker took over under center in Week 6—and Richmond. Perhaps most notably, the Spiders alone piled up 215 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Eventually, the influx of takeaways dissipated, and BC’s inability to rush the passer, missed tackles, and coverage deficiencies were fully exposed. The Eagles forced a combined 11 turnovers in Weeks 1, 2, and 14. But in the nine games in between, they came up with just six takeaways.

Freaky Friday Foreshadowed What Was to Come

ESPN’s Football Power Index only gave Kansas a 7.1 percent chance to beat BC back in Week 3, and understandably so. The Jayhawks were coming off a 12-7 loss to Coastal Carolina, where head coach Les Miles’ team’s lone score came on its opening drive. What’s more, Kansas entered with a 19-91 record for the decade and, as of 2015, had just 39 scholarship players. To top it all off, the Jayhawks were searching for their first road win against a Power Five opponent since 2008.

But Kansas, led by Carter Stanley and Khalil Herbert, defied the odds and delivered Miles his first signature win with the Jayhawks. In a game that featured 1,014 total yards of offense and 16 penalties, Kansas covered the 21-point spread in the opposite direction, embarrassing BC under the lights of Alumni Stadium.

BC’s defensive line, which recorded three sacks in the first three games of 2019, couldn’t get to Stanley, allowing the senior to, at one point, complete 11 straight passes and ultimately turn in what might have been the best performance of his career. To put that in perspective, the previous season, BC defensive end Wyatt Ray notched four sacks all by himself in Week 3. An Eagles pass rush was hard to come by for much of this year. Before tallying four sacks in the regular season finale, BC had just 12 on the year—even at 16, the Eagles still rank last in the ACC in sacks.

Saying that BC lost the battle of the trenches during this year’s Week 3 matchup would be an understatement. Not only did the D-Line fail to apply pressure, but it also couldn’t stop the run. One play, which Addazio aptly labeled as a “backbreaker” following the defeat, told the story of the game: With just 40 seconds left in the first half, Stanley pitched the ball to Herbert, and the senior tailback burst past the Eagles’ run blitz untouched before making Mehdi El Attrach and Mike Palmer look silly in open space and zooming down the sideline for an 82-yard run. Three plays later, Kansas scored a touchdown and never looked back.

Eagles defenders were taking bad angles, diving for feet, and waiting for ball carriers to come to them rather than driving their hips to make the tackle. BC ranked 115th in run defense after the loss the Kansas, and although the Eagles improved in that department as the season progressed, largely due to a playmaking linebacker corps spearheaded by Max Richardson (107 tackles, 14.0 TFLs) and John Lamot (74 tackles, 4.0 TFLs), they are still 90th in the country—and 11th in the ACC—with 180.8 rushing yards allowed per contest.

As far as the Kansas game is concerned, there were just as many red flags in BC’s secondary as there were up front. Missed assignments and mental gaffes, such as biting on play fakes, cost the Eagles chunks of yards at a time. Throughout the year, Sheridan toyed with different combinations in the backend, sliding in Haynes, Jason Maitre, and Elijah Jones opposite of Sebastian, and rotating Palmer, El Attrach, and fellow safeties Jahmin Muse, Connor Grieco, and Borgersen. Glimpses of promise were overshadowed by repeated struggles in space. Clemson wide receiver Diondre Overton’s 22-yard touchdown off a screen pass in Week 9 and Florida State wide receiver D.J. Matthews’ game-winning 60-yard touchdown off a slant in Week 11 were chief examples of such defensive lapses.

Even in BC’s top defensive performance of the season, the Eagles gave up 323 yards through the air to Pittsburgh. They currently come in at 126th nationally in pass defense—and dead last in the ACC—conceding an average of 299.6 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks. To make matters worse, BC has allowed the highest completion percentage (65.9), highest yards per pass attempt (8.5), and second-most touchdown passes (28) in the conference, ranking last in the league in defensive efficiency against the pass. All in all, the Eagles are 95th in scoring defense (31.7 points allowed per game) and tied for 126th in the FBS in total defense (480.3 yards allowed per game), four years removed from a season in which BC gave up just 15.3 points and 254 yards per contest.

Another Tough Break Led to an Unexpected Opportunity

Building on one of the better campaigns by a BC quarterback in recent memory, Brown—who tossed 20 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 2018—appeared to be poised for another season of improvement this fall. Paired with Bajakian, a quarterback-minded offensive coordinator, the third-year starter was offered more freedom to throw downfield, and he capitalized immediately. Brown hit on two pass plays of 50 or more yards in the season opener alone, one shy of the Eagles’ total for 2018, and made some of the most remarkable passes of his career. Granted, he was still inconsistent at times, but he seemed to be primed for a breakout game—and that looked to be the Eagles’ Week 6 matchup at Louisville.

Brown kicked off the outing 6-of-7 for 193 yards and a touchdown, as he picked apart the Cardinals’ secondary. On the Eagles’ first possession of the second quarter, he dialed up a 53-yard play-action pass to Zay Flowers. But two plays later, Brown’s day and season were cut short. Entering the red zone, the redshirt junior gunslinger scrambled 14 yards. In the process, however, he planted his left leg awkwardly, tearing his ACL. The season-ending ACL tear was Brown’s second in three years—the first coming against North Carolina State in 2017—and left Grosel in charge of the offense.

Grosel, a former preferred walk-on who rounded out the bottom of a six-quarterback depth chart the previous season, found himself in the spotlight on the road in ACC play. He responded by starting 7-of-12 for 94 yards and a trio of touchdowns. Grosel turned a two-score BC deficit into a third-quarter lead, and while his stats dipped and the Eagles’ defense couldn’t buy a stop in the two-point loss, Grosel’s gutsy dual-threat performance crowned him the leader of an unproven quarterback room moving forward.

With the Willoughby, Ohio, native behind center, BC’s offensive mindset shifted. Although the Eagles were always run-first, Bajakian leaned on Dillon and Bailey more than ever during Brown’s absence. Still, Grosel played his part, posting a 9:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. After completing a mere 18 of his first 53 attempts (34 percent) as the Eagles’ starter, he has connected on 46 of his last 78 passes (59 percent). Perhaps most impressive has been Grosel’s ability to extend plays and improvise with his feet. In fact, he’s been a more effective runner (4.2 yards per carry) than Brown (3.9) this season.

An Old-School Offense With Old-School Backs

Grosel would have had a much more difficult transition into the starting role without the help of Dillon and Bailey. Likewise, the hard-nosed tailbacks wouldn’t have churned out the rushing stats they did without their star-studded offensive line. All five of the Eagles’ first-string O-Linemen received All-ACC honors: right guard John Phillips (First Team), left guard Zion Johnson (Second Team), right tackle Ben Petrula (Second Team), center Alec Lindstrom (Third Team), and left tackle Tyler Vrabel (Honorable Mention). The big guys up front allowed just 11 sacks during the regular season, third best in the FBS. Of course, they also paved the way for a rushing attack that ranks sixth nationally and averages 267.8 yards per game.

Last year, Bailey was used sparingly. He only appeared in five games as a freshman, totaling just 253 yards on the ground—but 112 of them came in one game. While Dillon was out with his ankle injury last year, Addazio turned to Ben Glines, Travis Levy, and Bailey to fill the void in the backfield. Against Louisville, Bailey made a name for himself, carrying the ball 28 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. Glines and Levy also showcased their ability to take over games from the running back position, yet once Dillon came back, Addazio reverted back to feeding his star play after play, even with Dillon’s nagging ankle problem.

This fall, Addazio adopted a new philosophy, one that preserved Dillon’s health and gave Bailey a chance to shine. The two 240-plus pound backs formed a potent 1-2 punch, where Dillon remained the lead back, but Bailey could do just as much damage when his teammate needed a breather. BC is just one of two teams this season—the other being Ohio State—to have a top 10 rusher (Dillon) and another running back with more than 750 yards on the ground (Bailey). There have been four games this year in which Dillon and Bailey have each rushed for 80-plus yards. 

The Eagles’ best offensive performances have come when the backs both found their stride. BC’s 45-24 win over N.C. State on Oct. 19 saw Dillon rack up 223 rushing yards—and Bailey wasn’t too far behind with 181. Together, they combined for 404 yards, four more than the Wolfpack’s run defense, at the time ranked first in the ACC, had given up all season. A few weeks later, Dillon and Bailey put on an encore in the Carrier Dome. Dillon (242 rushing yards) and Bailey (172) teamed up to slice the Orange defense into pieces, helping the Eagles tally 496 yards on the ground, the second most logged by any team in an ACC game since 2000. As a whole, BC set a program record for total yards (691) and points against an ACC opponent (58) in the 58-27 beatdown.

Falling Flat Against the Best of the Best

A big reason why Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond got rid of Addazio was because, during his seven-year tenure, the Eagles weren’t all that competitive against ranked opponents. And it only got worse with time. 

From 2013 to 2015, BC lost to ranked foes by an average of 7.4 points per game. But from 2016 to the end of the 2019 regular season, the Eagles’ average margin of defeat in those games plummeted to 30 points. In that four-year span, BC averaged just 10.6 points per game against ranked opponents, while said opponents posted 40.6 points per game. Addazio’s lone ranked win came in 2014 against then-No. 9 Southern California, and he finished his stay in Chestnut Hill with a 1-17 record versus teams in the AP Top 25.

Fortunately for the Eagles, they only had to face two ranked opponents—No. 4 Clemson and No. 15 Notre Dame—in the regular season. Neither game was pretty. BC’s offensive production nosedived in every category imaginable, with the Eagles mustering an average of just 184 total yards in those two matchups. The Eagles’ passing game floundered, and their rushing attack was severely limited, particularly in the second half when they were down multiple touchdowns. In both games, BC looked unprepared and outclassed.

An All-Time Great and a Star in the Backfield

The only bright moment of BC’s embarrassing 59-7 loss to Clemson was Dillon becoming the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher. The junior surpassed Heisman Trophy finalist Andre Williams to take the throne as BC’s most prolific running back in the third quarter of the Death Valley blowout. A week later, he crossed the plane three times, leapfrogging Keith Barnette for the most rushing touchdowns in program history, as well as William Green and Troy Stradford for the school’s most total touchdowns. 

In three years with BC, Dillon has rushed for 4,382 yards and 38 touchdowns. The New London, Conn., native was named to the All-ACC First Team each year, starting with his ACC Rookie of the Year campaign back in 2017. Dillon changed the course of the Eagles’ season as a freshman, grinding out 272 yards and four touchdowns at Louisville, jumpstarting a BC offense that had averaged just 16.3 points per game amid a 2-4 start.

As a sophomore, Dillon entered 2018 as a Heisman hopeful but battled an ankle injury throughout much of the season. He finished with 1,108 yards in what he considered a down year. But this fall, Dillon cemented himself in both BC and ACC history, smashing program and conference records en route to a career-high 1,685 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. The junior rushed for 150 or more yards 14 times in an Eagles uniform, the most by any ACC player in the past 20 years. Now, his eyes are on the 2020 NFL Draft.

A Send-Off in the Steel City

Dillon’s final drive at Pittsburgh—one that prominently featured a mean stiff arm, and downhill running—served as a fitting send-off for both the running back and his head coach. When Dillon declared for the NFL Draft on Dec. 10, he tweeted out a video that showed him speaking to his teammates in the road locker room at Heinz Field. The star tail back, who rushed for 178 yards and the go-ahead touchdown, told the senior class, “I made a promise to myself that I was going to do everything I could to send y’all out the right way.” 

The bowl-clinching victory was just as, if not more, emotional for Addazio. As soon as he walked into the locker room, he was swarmed by his players in jubilation, celebrating a fourth straight trip to the postseason. Addazio carried that energy into his postgame presser.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our football program,” Addazio told reporters, per BC Athletics. “I couldn’t be more proud of our team. The way they played, the way they competed, and—more importantly—the way they loved each other. We’re going to our sixth bowl in seven years. We’re all very proud of that.”

The problem was, the Eagles took a step back in the 2019 regular season. They didn’t crack the AP Poll like they did the year before, they were historically bad on defense, and they lost a few winnable games at home to teams that included Kansas and a reeling FSU. Jarmond didn’t feel like BC was making progress, and he ultimately dismissed the seventh-year head coach. The numbers support the AD’s reasoning.

The Eagles’ offense and defense had an inverse relationship throughout Addazio’s tenure. For instance, BC’s best offensive year (2019) was also its worst defensive season, and the Eagles’ best defensive year (2015) was “complemented” by the worst offensive campaign of Addazio’s stay. Both units couldn’t seem to click at the same time, as was the case this fall.

Photo by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

Graphics by Andy Backstrom / Heights Senior Staff

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Senior Staff

Andy Backstrom
About Andy Backstrom 451 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.