Eagles Face Tough Challenge in Wolfpack Defense

Approaching the podium on Monday afternoon, Boston College football (3-4, 0-4 Atlantic Coast) head coach Steve Addazio tried to remain upbeat about his team’s progress in the face of mounting pressure.

“We’ve got a great attitude,” Addazio said. “We’re growing, we’re developing, and you know, I’d say … I like the development of our team.”

But in the wake of BC’s 28-20 loss last Saturday to Syracuse (4-3, 1-2), its 12th-straight conference loss, it’s becoming harder to distinguish honesty from coach-speak. With its passing game declining in efficiency and its defense looking less like Don Brown’s dominant unit by the week, there appear to be few areas of definable progress. And if that progress occurs behind the scenes, yet to announce its presence in a game setting, it seems quite unlikely that it will show during this Saturday’s game.

After a disappointing end to their month-long homestead, the Eagles head to Raleigh, N.C., as 15-point underdogs for a matchup against North Carolina State (4-3, 1-2), a team that has risen above expectations this season and boasts a perfect 4-0 record at home, with wins against Wake Forest and Notre Dame.

Head coach Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack has handled the departure of quarterback and team leader Jacoby Brissett much better than expected. Under the direction of redshirt sophomore Ryan Finley, the passing game has actually eclipsed last year’s unit, averaging 37 more yards per game. Finley has thrown for 1,508 yards, 11 touchdowns, and four interceptions in his first seven games of the season.

But these numbers may be a bit misleading. Over the last two weeks, in losses against ACC powerhouses Clemson and Louisville, Finley has thrown all four of his interceptions and has completed just 50.7 percent of his passes, compared to 69.5 percent over his first five games.

Yet Finley offers Doeren a strong-armed, traditional pocket passer, albeit with limited mobility. As a result, unlike the dual-threat Brissett, he can’t bolster the rushing attack. The change in quarterbacking styles has led the Wolfpack to alter its offense a bit this season. Doeren mixes spread passing concepts with pro-style running plays. The team has had to remove nearly all of its read option and triple option concepts, limiting the number of players who can get involved in the ground game. Running plays getting speedy receivers or backup running backs to the edge have dropped in number, a large reason why the Wolfpack has rushed for nearly 40 fewer yards per game than last year’s unit, which racked up over 200 yards per game.

Senior running back Matthew Dayes has played the role of a true feature back this season. He has accounted for a whopping 45.6 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, up from 24.8 percent last season. With 682 rushing yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, Dayes gives the offense a dependable option on early downs and in the red zone, combining decent speed with a powerful 5-foot-9, 203-pound frame.

Unfortunately for Dayes, he has been getting inconsistent help from his offensive line. On standard-down rushing plays, defined as plays that are first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer or fourth-and-4 or fewer, the Wolfpack averages just 2.72 yards per carry, 103rd nationally. In addition, per Football Outsiders, NC State ranks 107th in efficiency on third- or fourth-down short-yardage rushes. These early-down and short-yardage struggles have contributed to the Wolfpack’s ranking of 122nd in the percentage of drives that earn at least one first down.

Thanks to an explosive set of receivers, however, the team ranks 29th in percentage of drives that gain at least one first down and score a touchdown, per Football Outsiders. Sophomore receiver Stephen Louis has tallied 407 receiving yards on just 19 receptions, averaging 21.4 yards per catch. Jaylen Samuels, a fullback-tight end hybrid, has continued steady involvement in the aerial attack despite a decreased role in the ground game, leading the team with 33 receptions and running routes from a variety of positions in the offense. Continuing the theme of versatility, backup running back Nyheim Hines also plays a huge role in the passing game. The Wolfpack likes to take advantage of Hines’s blazing speed on routes in which he is matched up against slow-footed linebackers.

On Saturday afternoon, look for NC State to try to exploit BC’s linebackers in coverage, especially with Connor Strachan, the Eagles’ best coverage linebacker, either sidelined or limited. The defense must scheme ways to keep Samuels and Hines, among others, from breaking open in the middle of the field. It also must avoid one-on-one coverage breakdowns that would allow Louis open space deep down the field. Eliminating these aspects of the passing game should help the Eagles stay close in this game, as they figure to have success containing the pro-style run game of Dayes, as it lacks the tempo and spread concepts that have troubled them in recent weeks.

On the defensive side of the football, though it surrendered 54 points in the loss to Louisville, NC State possesses the 19th-best defense in the country per Football Outsiders S&P rankings. The front seven is disruptive and adept at getting deep into the opposing backfield, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb, brother of Georgia running back Nick Chubb, who has 11 tackles for loss and six sacks. Jared Fernandez and Airius Moore serve as aggressive, run-stopping linebackers. With these players, the Wolfpack ranks 21st in Football Outsiders’ havoc rate, which measures a defense’s ability to generate tackles for loss and pass breakups.

This front seven has allowed the Wolfpack to stuff most rushing attempts, allowing just 2.31 yards per carry on run plays on standard downs, 10th in the country. NC State also limits explosive plays very well, ranking 11th in Football Outsiders’ ISOPPP allowed metric, which tracks a defense’s ability to limit chunk plays. The team forces turnovers at the 28th-best rate in the nation, forcing eight fumbles already.

With an offense that heavily features the run, struggles to score on drives that don’t contain explosive plays and fails to secure the ball well, this trio of numbers does not bode well for the Eagles on Saturday. The offensive line must improve upon its ability to create running lanes for Davon Jones and Jonathan Hilliman, allowing the team to have success on early downs. With the Wolfpack’s pass rush and ability to limit downfield pass plays, it will be crucial for BC to keep third downs to manageable lengths of 5 yards or less, especially given the fact that Darius Wade may be the starting quarterback because of Patrick Towles’s pulled hamstring. An accurate short passing game that involves Tommy Sweeney and the running backs should help the beleaguered offense extend drives.

Since BC hypothetically matches well with NC State’s style of play, which uses less of the up-tempo emphasis shared by Clemson and Syracuse, the Eagles may find themselves in a close contest on Saturday afternoon. Hanging tough in a back-and-forth game, avoiding any mental lapses, would offer a sure sign of progress for this team.

With any luck, it’ll get the chance to prove that Addazio wasn’t just engaging in coach-speak during his press conference.

Featured Image by Ethan Hyman / The News and Observer via AP

October 26, 2016

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