The Hokies head north on Saturday to take on the Boston College Eagles in Chestnut Hill for a Halloween matinee. It will be a battle between 3-5 teams looking to rebound from a month filled with more tricks than treats. Historically, the Hokies have struggled against the Eagles power run game and stingy defense. But according to Dan Rubin of BC Interruption, this isn't your typical Eagles team.
The Eagles have lost four out of their last five and have yet to beat a Power 5 team. With that being said, BC has played everyone tough. What are this team's biggest strengths and its most glaring weaknesses?
It's really as easy as saying "defense and offense." The team's biggest strength is a smothering defense that's played tremendous throughout the entire season. The team's biggest weakness is an offense that's been at best mediocre and at worst completely ineffective.
The defense is a deep, experienced unit with good leadership and solid players. They play well together as a cohesive unit, get good penetration from the front seven and good coverage in the second level. They're big and physical with good hitting ability and closing speed. At this point, expecting the D to shut down an opponent's offense is perfectly normal.
That's even more impressive when you consider how bad the offense has been. The offense is young, inexperienced, and not cohesive. If a receiver's open, the QB overthrows him, he drops it, or the offensive line gets everyone killed. If they run, there's a hole and the man misses it or there's no hole at all. It's a case where they do some things well but never together, creating a situation where they're totally ineffective.
In recent years, BC has been known for its big and nasty offensive line paving the way for the Eagles run game. Last week against Louisville, the Eagles o-line was completely blown up by the Cardinals' front four. Was that performance an anomaly, or has the unit had its fair share of struggles this season?
The offensive line this year has been an absolute mess. They've improved in some areas, but for every step forward, they seem to take one or two GIANT steps backward. Coming into this year, BC had a crop of young, raw freshman and a couple of upperclassmen that never played, along with one senior in Harris Williams coming back from a major leg injury. Williams hasn't produced as the senior leader, and the younger guys are overmatched. There's raw talent that's there, but they've been really bad this year. Coupled with all of the injuries BC's had — including a couple that were on the line — they're now playing four or five guys who are either freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores...and it shows.
Sophomore starting quarterback Darius Wade was lost for the year after breaking his ankle against Florida State. In his place, Addazio has rotated two freshmen, pocket-passer Troy Flutie and dual-threat Jeff Smith, with mixed success. Tell us about each of these youngsters and what the Hokies should expect from them.
Neither is particularly good, and both QBs are really struggling with the speed of the college game. Again, there have been steps forward — after three games of rotating, Steve Addazio chose Smith as his starter, and we saw some flashes that he is capable of running this offense with regularity. But Smith, as a true freshman, really struggles in the passing game and has a tendency to miss wide open receivers and overthrow balls downfield. That's not a good sign when opposing defenses are stacking the box against the running game and the overmatched offensive line. Last week, Smith was injured getting into the end zone against Louisville on an eight yard run, so we're not sure of his status into Saturday.
Flutie has a decent first step but winds up being slower overall. His passing ability relies on the ability of receivers to catch and get open - which has also been a problem. But he ran a spread offense in high school and has to re-adjust to a completely different offensive scheme at BC — something he isn't really suited for at this stage. The natural snap judgment is to change the scheme and give him more options, but BC lacks decent receivers and the time from the offensive line to start chucking the ball over the place. When you combine that the receivers don't run in-routes and slants — because they can't get separation — you've got problems. Even when they have gotten separation, they've been infected with a case of the dropsies at various points during the year.
Bottom line is that the whole QB situation is a complete mess, much like the rest of the offense right now.
(There is a third QB — John Fadule. Fadule is a former walk-on who spent a year in prep school before matriculating to BC. If Smith can't go, I don't know if Flutie will start or if Fadule will get a look at all.)
The Hokies have struggled defending the BC rushing attack...for as long as I can remember. How do the Eagles' current crop of backs stack up against previous rushers, and is there one back in particular Tech fans should watch out for?
Much like the rest of the offense, the running game's taken a major hit. Last week, they went for something like -15 yards net offense, its worst output since they went for 8 yards against Maryland in 2012 and the first time under zero since a time period I actually couldn't find in a record book.
Prior to the season, everyone looked at Jonathan Hilliman as the big beast running back, but he struggled to open up the season behind the offensive line. Against Northern Illinois, he broke his foot and has been out ever since. With Myles Willis also gone for much of the season with injury, that left Tyler Rouse — who fits the profile of a scat back — and Marcus Outlow — who needs blockers to really be able to utilize his shake-and-bake ability — as the only two runners. Willis has since returned, giving the running game a slight shot in the arm.
Despite this, the running game at BC is always predicated on a solid blocking scheme, which has been virtually non-existent this year. There are flashes and there are times when the Eagles break off a good run here or there, but unless the front five (or six or seven with tight ends involved) start consistently opening up holes, the Hokies front line could have a fun day.
Mark Herzlich, Luke Kuechly...Steven Daniels? Is Daniels the next great BC tackling machine at the linebacker position?
Daniels is a monster, and he's had a couple of really great games. Last week, he was all over the place. It's been great to watch him develop from his freshman year, when I thought he struggled at times, to now. He's big, physical, strong, and fast. He's capable of getting out into coverage and using his athleticism to blanket a receiver, but he's also able to knife through the line and rush both a passer and a rusher. It doesn't hurt that the defensive line does a good job occupying blockers to let him do his thing. #52 is a guy to watch all day on Saturday.
Both teams sit at 3-5 on the year (womp womp) and are looking to turn the tide and finish the season strong. How do you see this year's matchup playing out and who walks away with the win?
I remarked this week how the margin for error, especially this season, is so razor thin. Of the last four losses for the Eagles, three are by one score or less.
For the past few weeks, I've noted that this BC record shouldn't have been unexpected. We knew from day one that this season was the start of Addazio's rebuild behind his own guys, but we didn't see how deep that rebuild needed to go. A lot of these BC athletes are young and inexperienced. Even more are hurt; BC's had substantial depth injuries to every single offensive position this season, losing at least one quarterback, two or three wide receivers, a couple of tight ends, a couple of running backs, and a couple of offensive linemen throughout the season.
In a conference where one or two plays here or there is the difference between a win and a loss, the mistakes made when you're playing nine guys who probably shouldn't be on the field result in more losses than wins. Against Louisville, the O-line let nearly everyone in on a play action pass, Jeff Smith was sacked for a fumble, which was picked up and scored, and Louisville won 17-14. Against Wake, they mismanaged the clock at the end of the game and lost, 3-0. Against Duke, the officials called off a clear touchdown for BC and they lost 9-7. If you're more experienced or even not as injured, maybe you're not in those situations.
BC will always have a very good chance to win because of its defense. That said, the offense hasn't given us any reason to think they can do it with any type of consistency to this point. For Virginia Tech, especially with Michael Brewer back, there's a good reason to say the same thing. One or two plays here and there, and the Hokies will win this one. Based on BC's performances, it's going to be really close, but Virginia Tech pulls it out.