Notebook: BC Looks Like a Changed Team in Win Over Northern Illinois

Less than two minutes remained in the first half of Boston College football’s Friday night season opener in DeKalb, Ill., Northern Illinois had the ball in its own territory, up 10-6. Rather than trying to extend the Huskie lead, head coach Rod Carey decided to run the clock out. The fifth-year man called for three-straight running plays up the gut.

But instead of just calling it a half—something BC head coach Steve Addazio probably would have done last season—he gave his redshirt freshman quarterback and offense one more shot to score before the half. Addazio used all three of his timeouts, successively, after each Northern Illinois rushing attempt. The three-play Huskie drive went all of five yards and took just 25 seconds of the ticker.

The Eagles got the ball back around midfield with about 90 seconds left in the half. Anthony Brown trotted out to the field for his first collegiate two-minute drill. But a few plays in, Brown settled into a rhythm—one of a seasoned signal caller. Methodically, the Cliffwood, N.J., native moved the ball down the field. The drive culminated in a touchdown pass to Michael Walker. Rolling left, Brown found a wide-open Walker in the back-left corner of the end zone, giving BC its first lead of the game and the young season.

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But the game wasn’t over by any means. It actually lasted for about two more hours. But in the span of about one and half minutes, we learned that the 2017 season was going to be different—not necessarily perfect, or even great, but certainly different. In the final year of his “five-year plan,” it’s clear that Addazio is changing his ways. It paid off on Friday night. BC escaped DeKalb with a 23-20 victory, winning its fourth season opener in the past five years.

The Good

1) A New Look

Right off the bat, the Eagles (1-0) looked different. Literally. For the first time since the Frank Spaziani era (2012), BC players had their names on the backs of their jerseys. Regardless of who made the decision—new Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond or Addazio—it was a good one. Not only does it make it easier to distinguish one player from another, but it also just looks sleek. Besides, it’s not like BC has a storied tradition of not having the names of the back its jerseys, like Penn State.

On a more serious note, at times, Addazio looked like a changed coach, a risk taker of sorts. Instead of starting graduate student Darius Wade—the safe decision—Addazio surprised everyone by going with the redshirt freshman, Brown. Even though Brown has a better arm and a higher ceiling, most assumed that Addazio would finally give Wade a second chance at quarterback. But in a crucial year of his coaching career, Addazio has shifted to a go-big-or-go-home mindset.

As advertised, BC played faster than ever. The Eagles ran 92 plays, including 49 in the first half alone. To put that in perspective, in 2016, BC averaged just 67.8 plays per game, and Baylor led the FBS with 88.7 plays per game. If the Eagles keep this up, they’ll end up atop at least one leaderboard. At the same time, BC still dominated time of possession. The Eagles held the ball for close to 34 of the game’s 60 minutes.

2) In-Game Adjustments

BC struggled to run the ball for much of the first half. Jonathan Hilliman carried the rock 13 times for just 25 yards (1.92 yards per carry). But it wasn’t all his fault. Right tackle Marcell Lazard was getting eaten alive by the Northern Illinois (0-1) defensive line, leaving Hilliman no space to run on the right side of the field.

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Addazio noticed and pulled the West Virginia transfer. He inserted John Phillips at right guard and shifted Chris Lindstrom to the right tackle position, where the star lineman had been practicing this summer. From that point on, Hilliman and true freshman A.J. Dillon had more room to breath in the backfield.

It took Brown a little while to get going. A dropped pass here and there didn’t help, but it appeared that the dual-threat quarterback was trying to do too much in his first career start. He completed just six of his first 13 passes for a mere 30 yards and was also picked off once. Most of his throws looked forced, especially the interception.

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As a result, offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler made things a bit easier for Brown. Loeffler moved Brown outside of the pocket and gave him a handful of checkdown plays, just get the ball rolling. Eventually, everything started to click for Brown, and Loeffler was able to take the training wheels back off. Brown completed nine of his next 10 passes, including a touchdown strike to Walker, to end the half.

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3) Anthony Brown

Ever since his recruitment, there have been high expectations for Brown. Before Patrick Towles entered the mix last year, Brown, then a true freshman, was thought to be a legitimate candidate for the starting job. But he redshirted the season, and turned his focus to 2017. After a shaky spring game, Brown bounced back to beat Wade in what seemed like a never-ending quarterback battle.   

Addazio put all of his marbles in one basket by starting Brown. The redshirt freshman stepped up to the occasion. Immediately, he showcased his throwing ability. After picking up a first down on the game’s first drive, Brown delivered a beautiful ball, 40 yards down the left side of the field to a striding Walker. But the junior wideout dropped the pass.

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Following the first-quarter interception, Brown was extremely smart with the ball for the rest of the game. He put it where only his receivers could get it. When he threw deep, he’d either hit his target or overthrow them. If there was a safety jumping a route in the middle of the field, he intentionally threw behind his target. At times, he looked beyond his years.

Brown recorded 42 pass attempts on the night, including 23 in the first half. All of last season, Towles threw 23 or more passes just four times. More importantly, Brown completed 61.9 percent of his passes. Entering the game, BC only had one quarterback on the roster with a career completion percentage above 50 percent (former walk-on quarterback John Fadule). Two touchdown passes in a collegiate debut? Not bad.

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4) Wide Receiver Play

This is the best wide-receiving corps in the Addazio era. With five guys of varying size and speed who can make plays, Brown’s life is all that much easier. Last season, BC didn’t have a single receiver eclipse the 500-yard mark, and only one—Walker—logged more than 400 receiving yards. That might change in 2017.

Walker caught a career-high eight passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. Tack on 45 more if he brought that long ball in, and his statline would be even more impressive. Redshirt freshman Kobay White, who developed a rapport with Brown in the offseason, had six receptions for a team-high 76 yards. Wideouts Jeff and Thadd Smith were also quite effective in the run game, racking up chunks of yardage on jet sweep/reverse plays.

5) Special Teams

After a putrid 2015, the Eagles’ special teams improved last season. But the unit was still subpar. Mike Knoll converted 12-of-14 field goal attempts and 27-of-30 point after attempts. But where he really hurt them was in the punting game. He averaged just 38.3 yards per punt. And for a team that couldn’t move the ball on offense, that didn’t bode well.

Knoll was a little better on Friday night, averaging 38.7 yards per punt. His first three hovered around 44 yards though. But Colton Lichtenberg assumed place kicking duties after winning the kicking competition this summer. He hit all three of his field goals—from 42, 35, and the game-winner from 37 yards out. Former BC soccer leading scorer Maximilian Schulze-Geisthovel displayed just how big of a leg he has on kickoff. Multiple times, the German booted the ball all the way into the back of the Northern Illinois end zone.

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The Bad

1) Yards Per Play

BC might have ran 92 plays, but not all of them were effective. In fact, many weren’t: the Eagles averaged 3.68 yards per play. Hilliman was stopped before or just after the line of scrimmage several times. And at least 10 of Brown’s passes were out to the flat. BC ended up with 21 first downs, but there were stretches where the Eagles couldn’t buy one. If they plan to run a high-octane offense for the rest of the season, first downs will be critical.

2) Defensive Line

Harold Landry has been hyped like no other Eagle this offseason. After deciding to forgo the 2017 NFL Draft and return for his senior campaign, Landry has been the talk of BC football. Reasonably so, given that he led the nation in sacks (16.5) and forced fumbles (7) last season. But on Friday night, he was a non factor. But so was his partner in crime, Zach Allen. Both defensive ends struggled to pressure Northern Illinois quarterback Ryan Graham. On one play in particular, Allen failed to contain the Huskies’ read option, and Graham broke away for a 60-yard run.

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The big guy made up for it later by blocking Northern Illinois’ potential game-tying field goal.

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But overall, the Eagles’ defensive line was unproductive. They were up against a tall task, though. Last year, the Huskies’ O-line only allowed eight sacks, an FBS best.

3) Backfield Struggles

Addazio said that Hilliman had his best offseason yet. It was hard to tell on Friday night. Even though there were glimpses here and there of the 2014 back that finished second in the ACC in touchdown runs, he looked pretty much like his 2016 self. Every so often, he’d break away for a nice gain, but then he’d revert back to running right into his tackles.

Hilliman carried the ball 25 times for 58 yards—a dismal 2.3 yards per carry. Dillon saw action for the first time in his career. The four-star recruit rushed five times for 20 yards. As a whole, BC was beat on the ground. Northern Illinois rushed for 16 more yards than the Eagles.

The Ugly

1) Bend, but Don’t Break

The Eagles had trouble with the big play last year, especially against the nation’s best. The same was true versus Northern Illinois. There were stretches of the game when BC’s defense was in full lockdown mode, and Graham had nowhere to go with the ball. But other times, there were gaping holes in the middle of the field.

For instance, even after Allen over pursued Graham on the eventual 60-yard quarterback keeper at the end of the first quarter, there should have been a linebacker within 15 or so yards to stop the run. Then, during the Huskies’ late-game comeback, cornerback Taj-Amir Torres forgot to turn his head to look at where the ball was, while in coverage. Northern Illinois wide receiver Chad Beebe tracked the ball, hauled it in, and ran away from Torres, making him look silly in the process. Plays like these will haunt BC.

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2) Miscues

Teams are always going to make mistakes, particularly in a season opener. But it’s not unhealthy to wonder what would have happened if Michael Walker brought in Brown’s 40-yard heave. Or if Lukas Denis picked off Graham’s pass on the goal line and took it to the house. Those are the types of plays that will always make fans, players, and analysts alike cringe.

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Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor

September 2, 2017