Football, Column, Featured Column

Some Positives Can Be Found in Football’s Season-Opening Defeat

DUBLIN — I can talk to you all day about the negative things. Usually, I do.

The state of Boston College football over my time as sports editor has allowed me to zero in on why this team loses, why it went winless in the Atlantic Coast Conference. I did it against Wake Forest, you might recall. Before you even ask, yes, it’s a lot of fun to be negative sometimes. Setting fire to a vitriolic keyboard with the ultimate concoction of embarrassment as a student with friends at successful schools, angry empathy for Eagles fans everywhere, and annoyance at the fact that I can’t share the glory in my writing with a happy team.

But I’m not doing that this time.

I won’t elaborate on how BC fell 17-14 to Georgia Tech at Aviva Stadium on the final two drives of the game. I’m not going to talk about missed field goals, not going for it with a quarterback draw, or secondary breakdowns on fourth down. I won’t harp on the decisions I don’t agree with, though there were several. Trust me, you’ll be able to read about that a lot over the next few days—from the local, dedicated BC sites to newspapers in Europe. That’s not to say that they don’t matter—they absolutely do. Head coach Steve Addazio and his staff have a lot to evaluate from a standpoint of both game film and strategy on their path to a bowl. But I can’t in good conscience just talk about that.

Why? Because of Jonathan Hilliman.

“It’s not the same team as 2015, it’s not the same feel,” Hilliman said after the game. “Even when [Georgia Tech] went up, we looked around and said all right, let’s dig in. … We’ll find a way to win, it gets better from here.”

Those aren’t the type of quotes from last season. That isn’t the attitude this team had. For much of 2015, BC looked defeated—with good reason, I suppose. But this bright side approach from the players? That isn’t something I saw much of last year. That warrants a mention of the good things that the Eagles did in the season opener.

Through all of the shortcomings, there were a lot of positives to take away from Saturday’s game. It begins with asking yourself the question: what do the Eagles have to do to get to the postseason in 2016? They must have a dominant defense. They must have a serviceable offense. And they must be electric on special teams. None of those objectives were fully achieved against Georgia Tech. They, however, were each partially achieved. Those building blocks should give BC fans confidence moving forward.

Let’s begin with the defense, because that’s where the Eagles looked the best (shocking). The secondary will absolutely have issues to address. John Johnson had the best game of the group. But allowing conversions on 4th-and-19 against a wishbone, triple-option team is inexcusable, something Addazio himself wasn’t afraid to admit after the game.

That being said … man, how about that front-seven?

Solely from a defensive line and linebacking perspective, the Eagles look prepared to face any offense in the country. Paul Johnson’s rushing threat is a menace to anyone it faces. This unit held it to a measly 121 rushing yards. That’s the fourth-fewest yards attained by the Ramblin’ Wreck against an opponent since Johnson moved to Atlanta.

Three in particular stood out to me: Connor Strachan, Matt Milano, and Truman Gutapfel. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, mind you—they’re clearly some of the best defensive players in the country, and I’ve been singing their praises for quite some time. But each showed me something different.

In Strachan, I saw tenacity. The newly-minted middle linebacker was everywhere on the field. He used his speed and toughness to power through the offensive line for four tackles for loss, many of which were deep beyond the line of scrimmage.

In Milano, I saw fear—well, in the eyes of his opponents. He had the game’s only sack, a nine-yard smash of Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas. More notably, on a blitz package from defensive coordinator Jim Reid in the fourth, Milano rushed at Thomas. Instead of running directly at the quarterback, Milano waved his hands in the air like the Boogeyman and shifted to both sides. The move caught Thomas off-guard, forcing him to throw an errant pass to the dirt. That’s the kind of smarts I want to see out of a senior leader and key player like Milano.

In Gutapfel, I saw complete command. BC’s defensive line was hampered by the loss of Harold Landry—the defensive end has been injured throughout camp, and needed to be eased into this game, according to Addazio. Yet Gutapfel stood up on his own. The 6-foot-3, 288 pound defensive tackle had 6.5 tackles (one for a loss), plus a fumble recovery. His imposing frame in the middle prevented Georgia Tech’s running backs from running through the middle for much of the game.

Those three players alone make it impossible to think BC can’t get back where it needs to be defensively.

So then, the offense. For the Eagles to succeed, it must have an offense that’s serviceable enough to get enough points on the board. That word “enough” is subjective to some. Being enough isn’t good to everyone. Given BC’s current talent, and given last year’s disaster, enough is exactly what it needs to begin with, before we can worry about getting to a higher level.

For me, that means that BC, in my most reasonable of expectations, should have an offense that scores 26 points per game overall, 18 in the ACC. That’d be a nine-point increase overall, and seven in the conference, from 2015. This may be more conservative than many of you would like, but consider this: if BC circa 2015 had an offense that, in each of its games, scored that average 18 points in regulation, it would have beaten Florida State, Duke, Wake Forest, and Syracuse, since the latter game went to overtime. It’s hard to play this “what if?” game, especially with that record-breaking defense, but I just want to give an idea of what 18 points per game could mean for this team.

This Georgia Tech game showed that BC has several playmakers on this offense. From the wide receiving corps, there’s Charlie Callinan, Michael Walker, and Jeff Smith. Callinan had four catches for 92 yards, the most since Thadd Smith had 99 against Duke. He also showed an ability to bust against defensive backs over the middle for long gains. The highly athletic duo of Walker (two for 28) and Smith (three for 26) also revealed an added dynamic to the game that BC lacked last season.

Hilliman, perhaps the most missed member of this offense, rumbled for 103 yards—73 of them on an electric touchdown run to open the third quarter. He showed toughness and smarts in how he exploited the holes by an offensive line that was full of holes last year. Now, the Eagles’ skill-position players appear comfortable using what is given to them up front. Also worth noting: as a unit, BC rushed for a net gain of 176 yards. Only eight of those yards were negative, meaning the offensive line was, for the most part, preventing plays in the backfield. Guys like Chris Lindstrom and Jon Baker look to be formidable men up front.

Most importantly, it appears BC will actually have a quarterback. Patrick Towles had 176 yards through the air on 11-of-17 passing, along with nine rushes for 27 yards and a touchdown. He looked like Tyler Murphy Lite on the ground with the shiftiness of a man 85 pounds lighter. His arm adds an extra dynamic that BC hasn’t had since Chase Rettig. It wasn’t all perfect from Towles. He had an interception tipped off a receiver’s hands and fumbled a ball after a blown protection from Jimmy Lowery. Yet he appears to be enough of a playmaker that could help keep BC in games enough to win.

“That’s what we have been working on all summer and all fall,” Towles said. “That’s what we are here to do and that’s the kind of team we are going to be. We’re going to be able to run the football like we did and we’re going to be able to throw it. We just need to do it more consistently.”

As for the special teams, well, those bright spots are a tad dimmer. Colton Lichtenberg cannot miss two field goals in a game again this season. He’s now 3-for-8 in his young career, with the misses all coming in games decided by a field goal. Addazio must work tirelessly to build up his confidence and prepare him for the ACC.

Yet in the punting game, there were positives. Mike Knoll had a ball land within the one-yard line, and looks to be confident and happy taking over for Alex Howell. Tyler Rouse appears to have given BC a solid answer that it lacked last year as a return man, with 36 yards on five returns.

Strong defense. Competent offense. And sharp special teams. The Eagles almost hit home runs on all three. While they ultimately failed, this first game proved that they have the foundation that will help them move forward. It could, potentially, lead to a successful season.

Because of all that, because of the growth and talent I saw from many players, today I’m being nice.

But if mistakes like that happen again, don’t get used to it.

Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor

September 4, 2016