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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs Boston College

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The Hoos have a chance to earn their spot to go bowling but have to deal with AJ Dillon first.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers have a chance to shore up bowl eligibility this week as Boston College comes to town. Prior to this week, Boston College had been at the bottom of our power rankings every week. There was a reason for that. Despite finishing with seven wins, including the Quick Lane Bowl over Maryland last season, nobody was giving BC a lot of credit this year.

Then, the Eagles went to Louisville and beat the Cardinals.

The fact they won the game was, perhaps, not that surprising. The fact they scored 45 points to beat the Cardinals definitely IS surprising. BC’s previous high this season was 28 against Central Michigan, and they’d broken 20 just one other game (23 against Northern Illinois).

Even though BC joined the ACC in 2005, the Cavaliers and Eagles have played just five times...and the Hoos are 0-5. That includes the 1994 Carquest Bowl and a 17-13 loss back in 2010, the last time these two teams played. Hooray for unbalanced schedules.

So, is this the year the Hoos finally knock off the Eagles?

Hoos on Offense

I usually start these previews with opposition’s offense. I think that is because we’re a defensive team. Or maybe it’s just easier to scout offense. Anyway, you can’t start a BC preview by talking about their offense. Here are BC’s rankings in total defense in the five years that Steve Addazio has been their head coach.

Boston College Defensive Ranking

Year Defensive Ranking Record
Year Defensive Ranking Record
2013 92 7-6
2014 11 7-6
2015 1 3-9
2016 9 7-6
2017 107 3-4

I’m actually not sure what that chart says. How does the #1 defense in the country win just three games? The point here is that BC is a defensive team. That 107th ranking right now may be misleading, as BC has already played Notre Dame (21st ranked offense), Clemson (38), Virginia Tech (25) and Louisville (4).

The BC defense begins with Harold Landry. He led the nation in sacks last year with 16 and is a sure fire first round pick in next year’s NFL draft. He’s a 6’3”, 250 pound DE and he’s damned near un-blockable one-on-one. There are ways to slow him down. The obvious one is to double-team him, or at least chip with a RB. Running at him also helps slow him down. The Hoos will do various things to keep Landry away from Kurt Benkert. They’ll throw some quick passes, they’ll double-team him and we might even see some read-option, which isn’t Landry’s strength.

The BC defense is a pretty standard 4-3 scheme. It is a veteran unit, with 10 upper-classmen. The lone underclassman is redshirt freshman MLB John Lamot, who has taken the place of Max Richardson who is out with a knee injury. Another LB, Connor Strachan is also out with a knee injury. Those two injuries are a big part of why BC is currently 115th in run defense. Strachan was the leading tackler a year ago. Strachan has been replaced by junior Kevin Bletzer, who was mostly a special teams guy.

Opposite from Landry is Zach Allen, who may not be Landry’s equal, but he’s also going to play on Sundays. Allen is bigger than and not as explosive as Landry, but he’s leading the team in tackles right now and is tied with Landry in TFLs. Last year, BC had five guys with double digit TFLs (the Hoos had two). The DTs are big and beefy but they are space eaters more than playmakers.

The secondary is good, led by FS Lukas Denis. He’s tied for the nation’s lead with five INTs and has also forced two fumbles. Both CBs are solid as well, and have good size. Isaac Yiadom (6’1”, 190) and Kamrin Moore (5’11”, 200) are the biggest pair of CBs the Hoos have faced this year. That may make it hard for the Cavalier WRs to get clean releases off the line. That, in turn, helps the pass rush.

The Hoos have had success in recent weeks by running the ball. Mostly, they’ve used the pass to open up the run. This week, the opposite may be the way to go. The BC pass defense is much better than their rush defense. If Robert Anae can get Jordan Ellis going early, it could be a long day for BC. If the Eagles manage to shut Ellis down and force the game on Kurt Benkert’s arm, it’ll be much tougher game for Virginia to win.

BC has had particular difficulty with running QBs. They’ve given up an average of 97 yards rushing to QBs. And that includes two games against teams without a mobile QB. Kurt Benkert isn’t really a runner, though he has had some success in recent weeks running the ball. But De’Vonte Cross is a running QB and he is available. It would be interesting to see if the Hoos run some wildcat type plays with Cross at QB. It could just be used as a change of pace or gimmick, but it could be very successful. We’ll see how creative Anae wants to be.

Hoos on Defense

If I ran the same chart as above for offense, it would be scary. How does a team win just three games with the #1 defense in the nation? By having the 125th best offense in the nation...that’s how. The highest a BC offense has ranked under Addazio is 80th. This year, they are 101st. After last week’s showing, they are up to 46th in rushing offense, but they are just 114th in passing offense.

BC runs a pro-style offense, lining up with two RBs and two WRs on most plays. Their offensive depth chart consists of two RBs, three WRs and a TE. That, of course, is too many players. (The Hoos offensive depth chart lists four WRs, a TE and two RBs, which is way too many.) Against VT, BC started with three WRs, but in every other game, they’ve opened with two WR, two TE and a RB.

The QB is redshirt freshman Anthony Brown. Brown is a runner who also throws, as opposed to a passer who also runs. He is completing barely over 50% of his passes, and averaging under five yards per attempt, which is the 2nd worst figure in the nation. In 2013, when David Watford was the UVA QB and was awful, he averaged 5.2 yards per attempt. Those passing numbers might be acceptable if Brown was making plays with his legs. But he has just 130 yards rushing on the season, and over 100 of that has come in the last two contests. Maybe the BC coaching staff changed something in their game plan, letting Brown run more.

I should note that Anthony Brown was injured last week against Louisville. He aggravated a shoulder injury that he suffered earlier this season. In his stead, senior Darius Wade finished the game and led BC to four TDs and a FG in seven drives. Wade is a more traditional drop-back passer. He’s seen only sporadic action in four years and has just 498 passing yards in his career. Last week completed 7/10 for 91 yards. Brown is listed first on the depth chart, but reports are that his status is still unknown. If he’s out, the Cavalier defense has an easier job.

The top two pass catchers are WRs Kobay White and Jeff Smith. Smith was a QB as a recruit, and actually spent a season as a QB for the Eagles, with three starts. He completed less than a third of his passes, though he did rush for 450 yards. He is still a threat to throw the ball, as has thrown twice this year. So the Hoos need to watch for a throw-back or some other trick play from him. White is a much more traditional WR. He’s tall and can go up and get a deep ball, and though he’s fast, he’s far from a burner.

The true burner for the Eagles is Michael Walker. Walker was the 3rd starting WR against the Hokies. He’s got 15 catches on the season, but averages only five yards per catch. He did lead the team in receptions a year ago. Walker is also the team’s return man and is 8th in the nation in punt return average. This will be a key for the Hoos, as the punt coverage team has been atrocious this year.

The starting RB is Jon Hilliman. He was the leading rusher a year ago, and has started every game. He is also averaging under 3.5 ypc. Last week, Hilliman rushed for -6 yards on his first two carries of the game. Freshman RB A.J. Dillon took over for Hilliman and rushed for 272 yards and four TDs on 39 carries. Hilliman is still listed as the starter, but Virginia should be preparing for a heavy dose of A.J. Dillon.

There actually isn’t any difference preparing for Dillon and Hilliman, because they are similar backs. Dillon is bigger and more powerful, but they are both big and powerful. Dillon seems to have more pure speed as well, although Hilliman has showed more speed in the past than he is this year.

Take a look at this run from Dillon.

That’s power. And the speed to finish off the long run. Dillon is a beast, but the Wahoo defense is much better than Louisville’s.

Conclusion

While we can’t discount the Eagles’ win over Louisville last week, we also need to understand what happened. Louisville’s front seven isn’t very good, and the defense as a whole didn’t play very well. There were numerous missed assignments and there was almost no pass rush. BC won the turnover battle, won the battle on 3rd downs and only committed 1 penalty. But they also gave up over 600 yards to Louisville. They put up over 550, which is admirable. But that rushing performance by Dillon is likely not repeatable.

The Wahoo rush defense is very good, even considering the two long rushes they gave up last week. And the Hoos have shut down much more accomplished passers than Anthony Brown this season.

BC has faced three defenses ranked in the top 35 nationally so far this year (Wake Forest, Clemson, and Virginia Tech). In those three contests, BC averages 295 yards and nine points. The Wahoo defense is 18th nationally. Advantage, Hoos.

The Hoos offense hasn’t been as good over the past two games as they were earlier in the season. Some of that is due to a commitment to the running game, which wasn’t there earlier. Some of that is facing better defenses in the ACC. And some of that may just be more game film and better game planning for opposition. Whatever the reason, the offense is going to have to start clicking again for the Hoos to continue to be successful this season. But this week, against a BC defense that hasn’t been stopping again, the offense should be fine.

Prediction: Hoos 28, Eagles 10