Notebook: Special Teams, Conditions Doom BC at Yankee Stadium

Turnovers, poor special teams coverage, and bad field position doomed Boston College football on Wednesday, as it lost to Iowa, 27-20. With the defeat, the Eagles (7-6, 4-4 Atlantic Coast) finished the season just a game above .500 for the fourth time in the past five years. To say the least, dropping the New Era Pinstripe Bowl will sting for a while.

As head coach Steve Addazio put it in the postgame press conference, “We wanted to close this thing out, as every team does in a bowl game, on a high note. But we were in a tough football game, and we’ll learn from that.”

Three Up

1) Darius Wade

Aside from a pair of interceptions that bounced off the hands of his receivers, Wade turned in one of the best performances of his up-and-down career. The graduate student quarterback followed up an excellent outing against Syracuse, completing 16 of his 27 pass attempts for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Wade showed a strong arm over the middle of the field, connecting with receivers on slant and drag routes. He was particularly effective when targeting Tommy Sweeney, finding the big tight end time and time again. After throwing an interception on the third play of the game, which was more a product of the weather than his own fault, Wade completed eight of his next 10 passes as BC took command in the first half.

Although he forced a throw on the last drive—which led to the Hawkeyes’ game-winning score—and lost a costly fumble on a strip sack, the backup signal caller did almost everything fans could have expected from him. He had zip on his throws and read the field well, especially when he had to make up for a struggling run game in the early portion of play.

2) Defensive Line

Throughout the entire game, BC’s defensive front played excellent football. With the already depleted linebacking corps fighting the injury bug, the Eagles needed a strong effort up front. Ray Smith, Zach Allen, Noa Merritt, and Wyatt Ray all took turns getting after Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley. The sophomore had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while surveying the field, and the Eagles made him pay.

Merritt had the game’s first sack—and took a highly questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for it—while Allen had a big sack on second down to set up an Eagles attempt for a half-ending field goal. For the most part, BC’s line also neutralized Iowa’s star running back, Akrum Wadley, and held the Hawkeyes to just over 100 yards on almost 40 carries—a 2.6 yards per carry average. While the linebackers had their moments, the defense’s performance hinged on the guys up front, who consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage.

3) The Future

Yes, another 7-6 season is a harsh reality for an Eagles football team that seemed filled with optimism following their second half surge—but there should be hope moving forward. BC showcased its talented youth on Wednesday, and the momentum could very well carry over to a full schedule of strong play a year from now.

When linebacker Kevin Bletzer went down with an injury, BC had to turn to true freshman Isaiah McDuffie, who’d played sparingly throughout the year. He stepped up, and with the exception of a pass interference penalty, excelled. When all was said and done, the true freshman recorded five tackles and a pass breakup. Addazio highlighted him postgame as somebody else that could step up in the future.

Additionally, there’s the well-known youthful trio: injured quarterback Anthony Brown, star running back A.J. Dillon, and wide receiver Kobay White. Pair them with young returning offensive linemen and a strong recruiting class by BC standards, and suddenly there’s a reason for fans to feel excited for the upcoming season. After a 2-4 start to this year, that’s more than enough for the Eagles’ fanbase.

Three Down

1) Kickoff Coverage

In the regular season, BC’s coverage on kickoffs was reputable. The Eagles ranked sixth in the ACC in average return yards (19.96) and 45th nationally. On Wednesday, however, the hardened ground at Yankee Stadium proved to be too much to handle. BC’s gunners and coverage team seemed hesitant and were frequently caught off guard—something Wadley exploited.

The Iowa running back returned five kicks and totaled 171 yards, an average almost twice the Eagles’ season mark. Wadley’s 72-yard return at the end of the first quarter was the longest conceded by BC on the year, and it set up an easy touchdown for the Hawkeyes. He also added a 40-yard return later in the game, but this time the offense stalled.

Still, the blown coverage haunted the Eagles. BC was already losing the field position battle due to turnovers, and Wadley’s lengthy returns didn’t help.

“We get down the field with great coverage units,” Addazio said, describing the kickoff performance as uncharacteristic. “We were pattering on ice out there on their kickoff team.”

2) The End of the First Half

Here’s the situation: BC drives 84 yards in under four minutes and kicks a field goal, forces a quick three-and-out, and drives back into field goal range as time dwindles in the first half. It’s up seven with a chance to extend the lead, the clock is stopped, and the field goal unit heads out. Addazio even has a timeout left in his back pocket if he wants to calm his guys down.

Except this time, the snap is rushed, the hold is off, and the kick sails wide right. In a game decided by a touchdown, a momentum shift like this was monumental.

Addazio didn’t provide many answers after the game, either.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “The clock was stopped. I’m not sure what happened with the communication out there, but it appeared as though the ball maybe was snapped before the operation was ready to roll.”

Regardless of whose fault it was, Lichtenberg’s, Addazio’s, the holder’s, or the line’s, it was a missed opportunity that ended up allowing Iowa to tie the game on its second drive of the ensuing half.

3) Yankee Stadium’s Field

After the game, every coach and player available in the postgame press conference had something negative to say about the quality of the grass at the baseball-converted-football field. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz described it as “tough for anybody with the ball unless you were going vertically and tough to really make cuts.”

Addazio said that the field conditions were especially difficult for A.J. Dillon, a running back who likes to plant his feet and drive his legs. BC tight end Tommy Sweeney talked about how he had to resort to wearing basketball shoes instead of cleats because of the frozen terrain.

The list could go on if more players were available for interview. ESPN cameras zoomed in on discarded cleats on the sideline, swapped out for sneakers. The Eagles’ defensive line had black tennis shoes on because they were slipping all over the place. Many times, players, more often BC’s than Iowa’s, went down on their own, slipping and sliding across the frozen field in the Bronx. It looked dangerous and was especially counterproductive for certain players’ skill sets, like Dillon’s hard-cutting style that Addazio described above or Smith’s agility and speed.

A late-December bowl held in a baseball stadium just doesn’t seem like a logical choice for a premier football game. Yes, the Pinstripe Bowl has had a good run the last few years, but the field quality definitely limited both teams this time around.

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Staff

December 28, 2017

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