The hits keep coming for Boston College football (4-5, 1-5 Atlantic Coast). Just one week after their first ACC victory since the final week of the 2014 season, the Eagles suffered a 52-7 beatdown at the hands of No. 7 Louisville, as Heisman trophy favorite Lamar Jackson rattled off seven touchdowns seemingly without breaking a sweat. Five of the touchdown drives were five plays or fewer and spanned less than two minutes.
On Monday, Steve Addazio attributed these quick strikes to an elite team’s ability to take advantage of any mistake.
“It’s the wild inconsistencies that when you’re playing an elite team with some elite players, they can expose those inconsistencies on you very quickly,” Addazio said.
The Eagles have now been exposed three major times this season, having lost by a combined score of 157-10 in defeats to Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Louisville. These teams represent three of the ACC’s top four teams, a scheduling hardship of which Addazio is very much aware.
“You know, who you play matters. I mean, it just matters, okay,” he said. “Again, that’s not an excuse, it’s just the facts.”
For a team still trying to groom players for the rigors of high level ACC football, the competition produces a feeling of being thrown straight into the fire. For some players, this test will make them stronger. But Addazio does worry about the alternative sometimes.
“Will this make us better over time? Yes,” the head coach said. “But it can rattle your confidence a little, too. I mean, you’re a corner out there, and you’re getting beat, that can rattle your confidence.”
Though the opponent won’t be any easier this week, the Eagles get a chance to prove that their confidence hasn’t been dented by Jackson. In a Friday night primetime game, BC travels to Tallahassee to face Jimbo Fisher and No. 18 Florida State (6-3, 3-3). Though the Seminoles have suffered three regular season losses for the first time since 2011, they are still an extremely potent team, ranked 12th in the country by Football Outsiders’ S&P ratings, higher than its listed ranking.
Offensively, the Seminoles are Dalvin Cook’s team. Cook has rushed for 1,134 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. This marks the third consecutive season that Cook has run for over 1,000 yards and has averaged over 5.5 yards per carry. A surefire top-five running back in college football, Cook boasts excellent balance and an uncanny ability to stay on his feet amid a swarm of defenders. He also has deceptive acceleration for a 215-pound man, combining this with elite cutback vision to produce a runner very capable of ripping apart a defense for long runs.
Fisher uses Cook frequently in runs from pro-style formations, with a fullback and one or two tight ends. Occasionally, he’ll mix in some shotgun run concepts, including the read option with redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois. Cook’s success in the run game also unlocks deep play action passes, as teams bring their safeties into the box to contain him. As a result, FSU ranks sixth in the country in Football Outsiders’ IsoPPP+ metric, which measures an offense’s explosive capabilities.
Cook is also nearly unstoppable in short yardage situations, a big reason why the FSU offense ranks fourth nationally by scoring points on 95 percent of its red-zone drives this season. The Seminoles have only failed to score points on two red-zone possessions this season, showing an ability to finish drives and ruthlessly take advantage of opportunities.
But the FSU offense has moved beyond an overreliance on Cook, thanks to the emergence of Francois. The first-year starter has totaled 2,492 passing yards, with 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has shown signs that he is worthy to succeed Jameis Winston, with both his play and toughness earning applause from national pundits. Francois possesses a very strong arm and above average mobility, which he makes use of on both scrambles and occasional designed run plays.
He also has shown maturity beyond his years in navigating FSU’s struggling offensive line, especially in situations where the defense knows he has to throw the ball. The Seminoles concede more sacks per game than all but eight teams, with Francois frequently finding himself on the ground or with a free rusher barreling into his chest as he tries to complete a pass. Nonetheless, he has led FSU to the second-best Football Outsiders mark on passing downs, defined as second downs with eight or more yards to go or third or fourth downs with five or more yards to go.
Francois has benefitted from a diverse group of receivers. Travis Rudolph leads the team with 599 yards and four touchdowns, having amassed a ridiculous 238 yards in a win against Wake Forest. Cook ranks third on the team in receiving yards, playing a big role in the screen game, as well as running routes downfield against overmatched linebackers. Sophomore Nyqwan Murray has totaled 15 catches and 249 yards over the last two weeks as he fills in for the injured Jesus Wilson. The senior wideout, the Seminoles’ second leading receiver and star punt returner, was lost for the season after having surgery on his injured foot.
On Friday night, expect Fisher to start the game with a heavy dose of Cook, as he does every week. Look for that to quickly change, as the Eagles’ stellar front seven should hold him in check, much like they did during last season’s matchup, when they limited FSU’s workhorse to just 54 yards. This may be a game that Francois needs to win largely on his own. An emphasis on short passes might be used to protect him from both his own offensive line and BC’s snarling pass rush. Look for Cook, even if he is bottled up on the ground, to play a big role in the aerial attack, running routes against the Eagles’ linebackers. To keep the game close, in addition to bottling up Cook, BC will need to cover play action deep balls well—something they’ve struggled mightily with lately—and hit Francois from all angles, preventing him from establishing a rhythm.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles’ offense will face a very talented unit, albeit one with a bit of an all-or-nothing mentality. FSU ranks sixth nationally by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate metric, led by senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker and his nation-leading 10.5 sacks. Walker and his fellow defensive linemen make mincemeat of opposing offensive linemen, living in the backfield. They excel at getting to the quarterback and are above average at snuffing out run plays. The Seminoles also excel at forcing turnovers, especially with their ball-hawking secondary, led by Tarvarus McFadden and his nation-leading seven interceptions.
However, despite all of the turnovers forced, FSU still struggles in pass coverage, ranking 95th in pass yardage allowed per game. They have a hard time curtailing opposing drives, allowing 41.2 percent of opposing third downs to be converted, 82nd in the country. On drives where the opposition gains at least one first down, they score a touchdown nearly 44 percent of the time, 92nd nationally. Florida State can especially be targeted down the field, conceding a whopping 14.12 yards per completion.
On Friday night, this defense will be the biggest test of the Eagles’ development. Weaknesses are there for exploitation, but only if they avoid dangerous pitfalls along the way. Patrick Towles must place ball security at a premium, resisting his season-long bout with fumbling issues and not forcing throws into tight windows. With both the struggles of the BC running attack and the stout FSU front seven, Towles and the receivers will need to drive the majority of the team’s offense. A few well-timed deep throws to Jeff Smith—who has been far too quiet in recent weeks—could be a key ingredient to a close contest.
But on the whole, the passing game must be cautious and avoid some of the backbreaking mistakes that have occurred over the last few games. With the Eagles’ defense having a good chance at containing Cook and pressuring Francois, this might be a game that stays within 10 points heading into the fourth quarter.
The stakes are high, but based on matchups, this game is BC’s best chance to upset a ranked team this season. If the Eagles are to follow through on their potential and not succumb to a shattered self-confidence, they must emerge improved from the crucible of their ACC schedule.
Friday night could be a high point in a disappointing season or it could be an eminently forgettable contest. Whichever outcome occurs, true to Addazio’s word, the mentality of the players will have been the deciding factor.
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Staff