Eagles Face Must-Win Game Against Syracuse

Overcome with emotion, Syracuse (3-4, 1-2 Atlantic Coast) head coach Dino Babers threw his head back, howling a primal cry of victory across the packed locker room, “WHOSE HOUSE? WHOSE HOUSE?” 

Banging on lockers and walls, Babers’ players answered the call, “OUR HOUSE!”

The frenzied scene that unfolded in the home locker room at the Carrier Dome after the Orange upended No. 17 Virginia Tech (4-2, 2-1) 31-17 last Saturday has been an unfamiliar sight around Chestnut Hill in recent weeks. Since returning home from Blacksburg in mid-September after absorbing a 49-0 drubbing, Boston College (3-3, 0-3) has spent the vast majority of the last month in a more anxious and rebuilding mindset.

Games against Wagner and Buffalo were labeled building blocks to future ACC success, contests in which the Eagles could reestablish their confidence for the rest of the season and banish the nervous atmosphere. However, after being handed another blowout loss, 56-10 to No. 3 Clemson (7-0, 4-0) in a Friday primetime game, the team remained in an intense introspective mood, reminded of how much work was left to be done. The team’s bye week mercifully arrived, offering a final chance to regroup and prepare for the second half of the season.

Following a nearly two-week hiatus, the Eagles return to Alumni Stadium on Saturday, as they play Syracuse to close out a month-long homestead. There is a growing sense that this week’s game is a must-win for Steve Addazio’s team, with two of the next three games on the road and the home game featuring Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson and No. 7 Louisville (5-1, 3-1). Certainly, a loss in this game, which the Eagles are currently favored to win by six points, would be disastrous for the team’s chances of returning to a bowl game.

While acknowledging the pressure to win in his weekly press conference, Addazio refused to place any additional weight on this particular game.

“You know, they’re all must-wins, they really are,” Addazio said. “Nowadays, every game has got so much importance.”

Though its record hasn’t improved greatly, the Orange has made strides away from last season’s 4-8 disappointment in its first season under Babers, who took over the program after two seasons at Bowling Green.

Syracuse’s path to victory has often relied upon its explosive yet inconsistent offense. Babers runs a rapid tempo spread offense, with the Orange ranking fourth nationally in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Pace, a metric that measures the difference between the number of plays a team runs per game and the number of plays that it would be expected to run given its average time of possession.

Syracuse heavily favors the aerial attack, with sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey leading the nation with 308 pass attempts and ranking fourth with 2,197 passing yards. Dungey, while possessing decent mobility and rushing for over 100 yards in the Virginia Tech upset victory, spends most of the game slinging quick passes to an army of receivers. The Orange occasionally throws the ball deep, especially off of play action or after several consecutive quick throws, but the quick passing game dominates the offense. The strategy masks the fact that Dungey doesn’t have a very strong arm. While Syracuse’s passing game tallies an impressive volume, the efficiency leaves a lot to be desired, as its average just 7.1 yards per pass attempt.

Babers also uses the short throws to cover one of the nation’s least effective rushing attacks, forced to create the easy yardage opportunities that normally stem from the ground game. The Orange ranks 109th in the country in rush yards per game and only averages 3.38 yards per carry. Sophomore tailback Dontae Strickland, a runner with excellent speed, only averages 14.6 carries per game, evidence of the team’s pass-happy approach. When he does run, however, his offensive line rarely opens creases. The Orange ranks 125th nationally in the percentage of running plays that total five or more yards, when such yardage is available, per Football Outsiders.

The rushing struggles are particularly prevalent on early downs, leaving the Orange with a high number of second or third and long scenarios. This, coupled with the inconsistency of the passing game, makes sustained drives difficult. Syracuse ranks 110th in Football Outsiders’ First Down Rate, the percentage of drives that gains at least one first down or produces a touchdown.

Fortunately for Babers, he has a pair of extremely reliable wide receivers to take the pressure off of Dungey and help sustain drives. Senior Amba Etta-Tawo has broken out in his final collegiate season, ranking second nationally with 930 receiving yards, despite only tallying 90 over the last two weeks. Etta-Tawo gives the Orange a true number-one receiver, comfortable running any route and able to make plays one-on-one. Junior Ervin Phillips has tallied 53 receptions and nearly 500 yards, serving as more of an underneath receiver, twice tallying double-digit receptions in a game without topping 100 yards.

On Saturday, expect the Orange to give the Eagles’ defense a bit of trouble. It will likely abandon the run early in the contest, negating one of BC’s strengths. Having struggled mightily against Virginia Tech and Clemson, this game presents the Eagles with an opportunity to show they can overcome the spread offenses that have been their downfall over the last two seasons. They will need to limit the Orange attack to short drives and avoid giving up yards after the catch. Additionally, the Eagles must vigilantly guard against deep play action passes after being burned numerous times against the Tigers. If Syracuse is forced to deliberately march down the field, instead of utilizing explosive plays, its chances of success will rapidly decrease.

On the other side of the ball, Syracuse still hasn’t made many improvements. The Orange ranks 113rd nationally in total defense and allows 33.3 points per game. Despite the offense’s improvements, a defense that struggles to stop opponents has plagued Babers’ inaugural campaign. Syracuse has been particularly susceptible to explosive plays, allowing an average of 14.98 yards on completed passes and ranking 115th in Football Outsiders’ ISOPPP metric, which measures a defense’s ability to limit chunk plays.

One of the main culprits has been a defense that struggles to make plays. The Orange ranks 113th in the country in adjusted sack rate, and its secondary ranks a dismal 127th in Football Outsiders’ Havoc rate, which accounts for how frequently a team’s defensive backs record sacks and force turnovers.

The Orange has found success in stopping opponents on standard-down rushing plays, defined as plays that are first downs, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer or 4th-and-4 or fewer. On these plays, the defense allows just 2.33 yards per carry, 14th nationally.

With their tendency to concede explosive plays and an ability to stifle early rushing attempts, expect the Eagles to target Syracuse’s secondary on Saturday afternoon. The running game may struggle yet again, but quarterback Patrick Towles and his receivers should find plenty of open lanes. While the Eagles should definitely favor the aerial attack, they should take care to avoid getting into an up-tempo shootout with the Orange. Controlling the clock will still greatly benefit Addazio’s team.

As fans file into Alumni Stadium full of trepidation, wondering how the Eagles will rebound from their latest setback, the team on the opposite sideline offers a reminder of how quickly momentum changes. Two weeks ago, the Orange lost 28-9 on the road against Wake Forest in its worst performance of the season. Just one week after that total offensive and defensive failure, Babers and his players were raucously celebrating a monumental upset win.

Coming off of a similar breakdown against Clemson, the Eagles can only hope their fortune swings as rapidly.

Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor

October 22, 2016