In Holy War, Eagles Must Contain Another Dual-Threat Quarterback

The list of FBS leaders in plays per game initially takes readers down a well-worn path. Paragons of up-tempo football appear immediately: Tulsa, Syracuse, South Florida, Texas A&M. But if you scroll past the first few names, you might be inclined to spit out whatever you’ve just been drinking.

Sitting at eighth in the country in plays per game is none other than Boston College (1-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast), running 87 plays per contest over the season’s first two games. The sheer volume of plays is even more impressive considering that the team ran just 66.3 plays per game last season—110th most in the nation—and has long been known for methodical, run-dominant offenses under head coach Steve Addazio. Embracing change in what many say to be a make-or-break season for him, Addazio has thrown the football more than ever before.

But the luster of this massive uptick in pace disappears once you glance at the success of those myriad plays. BC has averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per play this season, better than only three teams. In last week’s loss against Wake Forest (2-0, 1-1), freshman quarterback Anthony Brown completed just 11 of 29 pass attempts and the Eagles had nine drives lasting fewer than two minutes, with four ending in turnovers.

While not willing to back down from his new tempo or make a change at the quarterback position—Brown will start again on Saturday afternoon—Addazio has at least considered slightly altering the gameplan.

“Maybe we need to run it just a hair more, because we got to get the run game going a little bit right now and take a little pressure off the quarterback,” the coach said on Monday.

As he considers how to tweak the offense so that his defense isn’t constantly sent back out onto the field, Addazio can take comfort in knowing that his coaching counterpart this weekend is under considerably higher scrutiny.

Making their first trip to Alumni Stadium since 2012, Brian Kelly and Notre Dame (1-1) desperately need a win to prevent this season from spiraling into a tailspin of intense pressure from both the media and school administrators. Last season, the Fighting Irish finished 4-8, the program’s first losing season since 2007. Star quarterback DeShone Kizer, who powered the offense with 36 total touchdowns, has departed for the hapless Cleveland Browns, leaving the team in the hands of Brandon Wimbush, an athletic dual-threat who had thrown just five passes in his career prior to this season.

But beneath the surface, numerous indicators point towards last season’s team not actually being as bad as its record would indicate. The Irish ranked 26th among FBS teams in Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings, posting the best mark for any four-win team since the stat was first invented in 2005. Notre Dame had six loses by seven points or less, often spoiling quality performances with embarrassing finales. This lack of execution coupled with a defense that failed to force turnovers or get to the quarterback allowed opponents to stay close late in games and steal victories.

Kelly’s team appears poised for a bit of a bounce-back campaign, even in light of Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to No. 15 Georgia in South Bend last weekend. The offensive line features four seniors and four starters who are at least 6-foot-5. These veteran blockers, who helped the Irish to a 76.2 percent success rate on third and fourth down run plays with no more than two yards to gain in 2016—16th in the nation—pave the way for junior running back Josh Adams.

At 6-foot-2, Adams is a powerful back, but has plenty of explosion, averaging at least 5.9 yards per carry each of the last two seasons in a bit less of a featured role. This season, as the team’s unquestioned primary runner, Adams has already carried the ball 38 times for 214 yards, pairing with Wimbush to form a dangerous backfield combination. Wimbush’s ability to run the read option rather well has allowed Kelly to maintain a large portion of the offense run by Kizer last season. Though he ran for just one yard last week, he ran for 106 yards in the Irish’s opening week victory over Temple.

The run game will be crucial to Notre Dame’s offensive success this season, as Wimbush is a bit raw in the pocket, often throwing off of his back foot and struggling to complete passes. Against Georgia, he completed just 19 of 39 attempts. He frequently looks for his top receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, often staring him down before throwing the ball. St. Brown led the Irish with 961 receiving yards last season, but recorded just two receptions against Georgia, as the Bulldogs keyed in on him.

On Saturday, expect the Irish to keep the ball on the ground, at least early in the game. The Eagles have struggled to defend some quarterback runs over the last two weeks, with opponents using the front seven’s aggressiveness and speed against it, taking advantage of over pursuit of the running back. If Wimbush can establish success on the ground, that might open some additional holes for Adams, who figures to face similar problems to the ones he faced against Georgia, where he ran for just 53 yards on 19 carries. Success with the ground game seems to be the best way to generate completions for Wimbush, with rollouts and play action passes distracting defenders and allowing him easy throws. If he is forced into being a pocket passer for large stretches of the game, the Irish might have trouble scoring.

On the other side of the ball, though the Irish have a new defensive coordinator—Kelly poached Mike Elko from Wake Forest—much of the personnel remains the same. The linebacking corps—led by middle linebacker Nyles Morgan and linebacker/safety hybrid Drue Tranquill, who finished first and second on the team in tackles last season—is aggressive and versatile, coupling with a defensive line that starts no one shorter than 6-foot-4 to form an aggressive front seven, very capable of handling the run. On the other hand, though the players are experienced, the secondary is a bit young, starting two sophomores and having several others on the depth chart. Last season, the Irish ranked 23rd nationally against the run but just 86th against the pass, per Football Outsiders S&P+ Defense rankings. The team’s aforementioned issues with forcing turnovers and getting sacks allowed opponents to stay on the field longer and find ways to advance the ball.

While this may have been true in 2016, the Irish have taken steps to correct those problems this season. They already have five sacks and three forced turnovers, enabling the secondary to have fewer passes to defend and putting it in a more advantageous position. Elko’s emphasis on increased pressure from the front seven has also helped out the defensive backs, limiting the length of time they have to chase receivers around the field.

Regardless of the exact rankings, this is a unit that is relatively strong across the board, leaving BC in a position where its gameplan already seems predetermined. With Brown struggling, expect a heavier dose of Hilliman and especially A.J. Dillon, even if the duo falters. Some semblance of a run game is needed to bolster a freshman quarterback, especially one coming off such a poor performance. Look for Brown to minimize deep shots and potentially target tight ends and running backs more frequently, seeking safer throws in the middle of the field.

As the teams meet for the latest installment of the Holy War, it’s clear that some of the sheen of this matchup has worn off in recent years. It’s on the Eagles to fix that, as the 13-point home underdogs. If the offense can move the ball, BC can give off the impression that the game features two teams going back and forth.

But if the up-tempo assault peters out and three-and-outs rule the afternoon, fans will once again leave Alumni wondering how a storied rivalry left them behind.

Featured Image by Danielle Fasciano / Heights Staff

September 15, 2017