Numbers Point to Eagles in Syracuse Matchup

If you polled fans of mid-level college football teams competing in a Power Five conference and asked them what would qualify as a good season, you’d probably hear varied renditions of the following statement:

“If we end up making it to a bowl game, I’ll call that a successful season.”

While there are some uniformly good things that come from making a bowl game—namely, the ability to continue practicing and growing as a team for an extra month, with only one game on the horizon—this kind of hope for a season operates under the idea that any compilation of at least six wins is essentially the same.

But as Boston College (6-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast) can attest, that idea couldn’t be farther from the truth, particularly for fans of the program.

Last season, the Eagles entered their final home game at 4-6, coming off of consecutive blowout losses to Louisville and Florida State by a combined score of 97-14. After a 30-0 drubbing of a UConn squad that barely looked like an FBS team, the Eagles clinched a bowl berth in their final game by eking out a 17-14 win at Wake Forest, in a game where the offense managed just 167 total yards.

The resulting berth in the Quick Lane Bowl didn’t quite feel like a wholly earned reward for a team that had lost four conference games by at least 38 points and reached six wins with the aid of one of the weakest nonconference schedules for a Power Five team.

But this season, BC has undoubtedly earned its bowl appearance—clinched with a 39-16 win over UConn at Fenway last week. With three strong conference wins and a nonconference schedule featuring three quality opponents (and UConn), no one can accuse the Eagles of backing into a bowl game this year.

“It’s fantastic and it’s gratifying,” Steve Addazio said on Monday in response to questions about again qualifying for a bowl. “I think having the schedule that we’ve had this year and the way it’s played out, I think, has been unbelievable.”

Even with a bowl appearance clinched for the fourth time in five seasons under Addazio, the Eagles still face a difficult challenge in finishing their regular season schedule with Saturday’s rivalry game against Syracuse (4-7, 2-5) at the Carrier Dome. With higher priority bowl berths and regional pride on the line, BC’s head coach isn’t going to tolerate any dips in focus this week.

“Our approach to this football game is it’s the Super Bowl and we’ve got to go win it,” he said.

Dino Babers and his Syracuse team enter this week’s matchup trying to salvage a positive ending to a once-promising campaign. After pulling off a shocking 27-24 upset at home over then-No. 2 Clemson, bringing the Orange to 4-3, the team has lost four straight games. The wheels have fallen off the last two weeks, as the defense has surrendered 64 and 56 points to Wake Forest and Louisville, respectively.

The offense also turned in an embarrassing effort last week, scoring just 10 points and committing four turnovers, largely due to the absence of star junior quarterback Eric Dungey. The potent dual-threat passer—who had totaled a career-high 595 rushing yards and led the Orange with nine rushing touchdowns before the absence—has missed the last two games with a lower right leg injury and will likely miss Saturday’s game against the Eagles.

Senior quarterback Zack Mahoney started against Wake and then split time with redshirt freshman Rex Culpepper against the Cardinals, but neither arrangement has worked as well as Babers would’ve hoped. Syracuse’s offense—which has run 965 plays this season, most among FBS teams—operates at a lightning-fast tempo and requires a clear-headed and experienced signal-caller in order to accurately execute plays at that pace. Unfortunately, Mahoney and Culpepper have been quite sloppy with the ball the last two weeks, combining to complete just 46-of-94 total pass attempts with six interceptions. As a team, Syracuse struggles to take care of the ball, turning it over on 12.8 percent of its possessions, 90th in the country.

Even with Mahoney and Culpepper splitting snaps on Saturday—unless one of the two has an unexpected outburst—don’t expect the Orange to noticeably change their offense. They’ll still run their warp-speed tempo, with a dizzying dose of quick passes. Babers has perhaps the best one-two receiving combination in the country in seniors Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, a great security blanket for inexperienced quarterbacks.

A semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award—given annually to the top receiver among FBS teams—Ishmael has 94 receptions for 1,160 yards, ranking second and fourth in the nation, respectively. While not overly explosive, Ishmael has been the most consistent receiver in the country this season, displaying phenomenal hands en route to five games with at least 10 grabs. Phillips ranks fifth nationally with 81 catches for 839 yards.

On the ground, the Orange have used the duo of Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal to complement the quarterback run game. Despite being a very physical runner and serving as the featured back for most of the year, Strickland has picked up just 482 yards on 128 carries this season. He missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury and is considered questionable for Saturday.

Neal has totaled at least 86 rushing yards the last two weeks and has shown an ability to find running lanes, but he doesn’t seem likely to be the back that resurrects a struggling rushing attack. Syracuse’s issues extend to an offensive line that has a hard time keeping defenses out of the backfield—the Orange rank 114th in tackles for loss allowed per game—and sustaining blocks upfield—only 25 teams pick up at least five yards on a run play less frequently than the Orange.

On Saturday, look for Syracuse to play with tempo at every available opportunity, looking to create confusion and missed assignments. Its inexperienced quarterbacks will need all the advantages they can get against an athletic BC secondary. While Ishmael and Phillips will get their fair share of catches, the Eagles must limit their gains after the catch, curtailing Syracuse’s preferred short passing attack. Additionally, though neither Culpepper nor Mahoney brings the same dynamic skill set to the running game as Dungey, expect a decent amount of read option plays on Saturday, as Babers’s film study will likely alert him to the fact that almost every quarterback that has tried those plays against BC has succeeded to some degree.

Just as the Orange have struggled in the turnover department on offense, they have also struggled on defense. Syracuse forces a turnover on just 5.5 percent of its defensive series, a mark better than only three teams. They really struggle to get pressure on the quarterback in obvious passing situations and frequently allow huge chunks of yardage on the ground—the Orange have surrendered at least five yards on 40.6 percent of opponents’ rushes, 95th in the country. Syracuse allowed a combined 782 rushing yards the last two weeks.

Although senior linebackers Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin excel at tracking down running backs in the hole, those numbers don’t bode well for an Orange defense preparing to face human battering ram A.J. Dillon this week. With the Eagles breaking in a new quarterback against UConn last week, the true freshman totaled 24 rushes for 200 yards and figures to see another hefty workload on Saturday.

Speaking on that subject during his press conference Monday, Babers offered perhaps the understatement of the week.

“BC probably runs the ball better than the last two opponents we just played,” Babers said. “That’s not good for us, and it’s really good for them.”

While most of the numbers point to the Eagles in this matchup—and even the opposing coach seems at least a little resigned to an impending beatdown in the ground game—Vegas has the team as just 3.5-point favorites for a reason. Trying to win against a conference opponent on the road—in the Carrier Dome, where the unblemished weather and turf field mesh perfectly with Babers’s up-tempo offense—while starting a backup quarterback is still difficult for most programs.

But if the Eagles take advantage of their opportunities and retain their composure in the face of the no-huddle passing game, a victory should be well within their reach. And for Addazio, that would offer an opportunity to head into the bowl game in a position of real strength, further signifying the progress his program has made since its last attempt at reaching bowl eligibility.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

November 24, 2017