In Detroit, Eagles Eye First Bowl Win Since 2007

In late December, amid Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, reconnecting with family and friends, and stuffing your face with an obscene amount of food, the NCAA offers fans around the country another holiday tradition. Before the highly anticipated bowl games take place, viewers are treated to a parade of average teams playing in increasingly obscure bowl games such as the Dollar General Bowl or the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl. With an astounding 82 teams receiving invitations to the postseason, some matchups are bound to turn viewers away and attract the ire of pundits.

Unfortunately for Boston College football (6-6, 2-6 Atlantic Coast), it seems like its matchup against the University of Maryland (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) in the Quick Lane Bowl has taken on a disproportionate share of the criticism. SB Nation ranked the Eagles’ game as the least watchable of the 41 bowls.

USA Today did as well, offering an extremely blunt reason: “BC’s games [tend] to challenge the viewer’s resolve even when the Eagles [are] winning.”

ESPN’s lead college football analyst Mark Schlabach couldn’t think of an actual reason to watch the game, beyond the fact that at least Rutgers, owner of the worst offense in FBS football, will not be playing in the Quick Lane Bowl.

But to BC’s head coach Steve Addazio, none of that extraneous chatter matters.

“Our goal right now is to get our seventh win,” he said on Wednesday. “That’s our goal. That’s what it’s all about.”

After finishing the season with victories over UConn and Wake Forest to reach a 6-6 record, the Eagles are looking to bring their newfound momentum to Detroit, in search of the first bowl victory of Addazio’s tenure and the first for the program since 2007.

He has been particularly happy about getting an additional few weeks of practice to reinforce habits and fundamentals across his young roster.

“We’ve had an opportunity to really develop our young team,” Addazio said. “And the extra bowl practices, [we] probably get about 15, 16 of them, in which it has been fantastic to watch the young players develop.”

That progress will be tested against the Terrapins, who have endured a season that bears striking resemblance to the one the Eagles just completed. In D.J. Durkin’s first year at the helm, Maryland finished with a 6-6 record after going 3-9 in 2015. Like BC, the Terps eked out a .500 record in a highly competitive conference: the Big Ten. And, like BC, the Terps suffered embarrassing losses to the nationally ranked teams in their conference, including a 62-3 drubbing at home against Ohio State and a 59-3 rout at the hands of Michigan.

Durkin has utilized an up-tempo, spread offense to mixed results this season. Much of this stems from the dichotomy between the passing and rushing attacks. Senior Perry Hills has been Maryland’s lead signal caller this season. Operating mostly in pistol and shotgun formations, the quarterback in Durkin’s system must execute a large volume of plays. Read options and quick throws on play action comprise a majority of the offense, requiring the quarterback to make rapid decisions on nearly every play.

Hills has been up to the challenge when he has been on the field. He has completed 66 percent of his passes—tops in the Big Ten—displaying good accuracy on short and intermediate throws. With just three interceptions thrown, Hills is the main reason why the Terps have taken such good care of the football this season, ranking 22nd in turnovers. He has also rushed for four touchdowns, displaying an ability to make the defense pay for not accounting for him on option runs.

However, the hard hits he has taken as a runner have frequently disrupted the Maryland offense. Due to injuries to both shoulders, Hills has missed two full games and parts of four others. In games in which he hasn’t thrown double digit passes, the Terps are 0-5, averaging an anemic 7.4 points per game. A combination of three backups has thrown for five interceptions and completed 51 percent of their passes in his stead.

When Hills does play, an ineffective offensive line has drastically limited his ability to extend drives. Maryland’s offensive line ranks 123rd in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate, frequently overpowered by speedy edge rushers. As a result, the Terps convert just 34.9 percent of their 3rd down plays—104th nationally—and rank 97th in time of possession. Sophomore receiver D.J. Moore is Hills’ top target, with 597 yards and six touchdowns.    

Buoyed by Durkin’s scheme and a rotation of up to six running backs, Maryland boasts the 14th best rushing attack in the nation by Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings. The offensive line is much better in run blocking than in pass protection, ranking 15th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric, an opponent-adjusted measure of yards gained per rush. The running game ranks 28th nationally, when considering the percentage of its runs that gain at least five yards.

After the November arrest of star freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison—who had run for 633 yards in just nine games—sophomore Ty Johnson has become the backfield leader. With 845 rushing yards, 8.9 yards per carry and nine runs of more than 40 yards during Big Ten play, Johnson brings home run potential to every play. He effective on both outside runs and plunges between the tackles. Senior Kenneth Goins, Jr. and backup quarterback Tyrell Pigrome have been worked into the gameplan in recent weeks to juice the running game in Harrison’s absence.

On Monday afternoon, expect BC’s defense to handle the Terps’ offense well. Despite Hills’ success this season, he does not possess the throwing skills or the receivers to consistently challenge the Eagles’ struggling secondary down the field. BC will welcome underneath throws, which give its linebackers an opportunity to attack the football. Though some read option schemes have troubled BC this season, Hills does not pose enough of a threat to divert attention from Johnson and Durkin’s other backs. The BC front seven should be able to penetrate the Maryland backfield early and often, containing the running backs and forcing the Terps into the third and long plays. If the Eagles can limit explosive run plays, Maryland will likely struggle to approach 20 points.

On the other side of the ball, Maryland’s struggles play right into BC’s hand. The Terps have only forced 10 turnovers on the season—only three teams have forced fewer. Despite having a defensive line that holds the 18th ranked Adjusted Sack Rate, according to Football Outsiders, Maryland’s inability to disrupt opposing offenses has kept its defense on the field for long periods of time. Opponents pick up a first down on nearly 80 percent of drives against the Terps, a disastrous figure that ranks 116th in FBS football.

This has led to poor run defense—Maryland ranks 127th, according to Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings. The Terps rank 128th—dead last—in Adjusted Line Yards Allowed. They let opposing runners pick up five yards, when five yards is available, 43 percent of the time—108th nationally. Though linebackers Shane Cockerille and Jermaine Carter, Jr. have amassed over 100 tackles each, the rest of the front seven has been largely disappointing this season. Opposing offensive lines can often pry open gaping holes up the middle and the unit struggles to contain options or misdirection runs.

For a BC run game that hasn’t averaged over 3.0 yards per carry since the end of October, this matchup provides an opportunity for the offensive line to show that it has made some strides in the last month of practices. Additionally, because of the Terps’ run defense issues, the Eagles’ lack of creativity in the ground game shouldn’t be as big of an issue as it was at times in ACC play. Expect heavy doses of Jon Hilliman and Davon Jones early, as Addazio looks to establish physical dominance. A successful running attack could finally open up play action throws down the seam to Tommy Sweeney and Jeff Smith, plays that have not fooled defenses in recent weeks. With the Terps’ defense ranking 109th nationally in Football Outsiders’ IsoPPP+ rating, which assesses a team’s concession of explosive plays, this might be the type of game the Eagles can break open with a few well-timed deep throws.

Unbelievably, BC is in good position to win a bowl game, despite a 4-6 start and being outscored 202-24 by the top four teams on its schedule. The momentum that both the team and Addazio would draw from a victory on Monday could potentially be enough to drive the program out of its lengthy rebuilding stage.

And though the matchup will likely be light on highlight reel plays, a victory is the only entertainment the Eagles and their fans want to see in Detroit.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

December 24, 2016