Back in the late ’80s, Steve Addazio accepted his first head coaching job at Connecticut’s Cheshire High School. Over the course of his six-year tenure, he led the program to 49-straight wins and three-consecutive state titles, all while sending 20-some players to the college ranks. But it was also during that span that he formed a lasting relationship with then-University of New Haven head coach Mark Whipple.
Even after Addazio left Connecticut for Syracuse and Whipple departed for Brown, the two remained in contact, often advising each other on career choices and job opportunities. Forty or so years later, the two find themselves coaching Boston College and Massachusetts, respectively—two schools that are both listed in SB Nation’s top-25 returning offensive production rankings and fresh off impressive finishes to the 2017 season.
For the third time since Addazio took over the reigns in Chestnut Hill, the sixth-year Eagles coach will face off against Whipple. But this year’s meeting—the 28th all-time between the in-state rivals—is one of its own.
“This is without a doubt the best UMass team that we have faced since I have been here,” Addazio told reporters during his Monday weekly press conference.
The Minutemen are returning 87 percent of their 2017 production, most notably their quarterback, running back, top-three wide receivers, and all but one of last year’s starting offensive linemen. Their offense, a unit that just put up 63 points on Duquesne this past weekend, all starts with Andrew Ford.
Originally recruited by a handful of ACC schools, including BC, the Camp Hill, Pa. native committed to Virginia Tech before ultimately leaving the program, playing a year in JUCO, and then transferring out to UMass. His journey might be unconventional, but his passing style is relatively orthodox. The lefty is an accurate downfield thrower. He works the middle of the field, hitting wideouts on crossing patterns, setting the stage for home run routes later in the game. Last year, Ford went on to record a 22 to 4 touchdown-interception ratio, completing 63.2 percent of his pass attempts in the process.
Luckily for the redshirt senior, he’s locked and loaded on the perimeter. The Minutemen’s top-two wide receivers—Andy Isabella and Sadiq Palmer—have 4.4/4.5 speed, not to mention the team’s lead back, Marquis Young, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry in the final six games of the 2017 campaign. Win or lose, this UMass squad scores at will.
“I’ve always felt like Mark [Whipple] was a guy that was a gambler,” Addazio said. “He’s going to take his shots. They’re going to have trick plays.”
Needless to say, the Eagles’ secondary will have its hands full. Fortunately for defensive coordinator Jim Reid, BC will be playing a spitting image of itself. The Minutemen run an up-tempo offense—one that logged 75.4 plays per game last year, 1.4 shy of BC’s average. As far as Addazio’s concerned, stopping UMass will hinge on whether or not the Eagles can pressure Ford and disrupt his rhythm in the pocket.
Of course, BC will have to hope its own signal caller can stay upright. Anthony Brown, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear against North Carolina State last season, is back to 100 percent and will start on Saturday. The odds are in the redshirt sophomore’s favor. After all, the Eagles gave up just 15 sacks a year ago, tied with Troy for the 13th-fewest in the FBS—and that was after they lost two starting O-Linemen to season-ending injuries.
Up front, the Eagles are deeper than ever, carrying seven offensive linemen who have made at least 10 starts in their collegiate careers. Brown will also have one of the most electrifying running backs in the sport at his hip: A.J. Dillon, a kind of power back that Addazio says he’s never seen before.
The ACC Preseason Player of the Year is one of just two running backs on the team’s official Week One depth chart, meaning that freshman David Bailey will likely sit out the season opener. That doesn’t mean that the Maryland product hasn’t been living up to expectations.
“Watching [Bailey] right now, reminds me of where A.J. was this time a year ago.”
That comment could also explain why Bailey was left off the Week One depth chart, considering that Dillon was eased into the offense last season, rushing just five times in the Eagles’ season-opening victory over Northern Illinois. Regardless, Dillon should be able to handle the workload. His head coach emphasized on Monday that the Heisman Trophy candidate is an every down back who can run the rock, catch the ball out of the backfield, and pick up pass protections. If he’s right, Dillon’s name will only continue to rise on NFL Draft boards.
Addazio has had Whipple’s number the last two times these teams have met, and it hasn’t been close. The Eagles defeated UMass a combined, 56-14, in those matchups, holding the Minutemen to a mere seven points in both meetings. That said, UMass is undoubtedly a different team this time around. The Minutemen have racked up 39.4 points per game in their last seven contests, dating back to last season. Whipple’s team will likely present problems for BC, in one way or another—Addazio is well aware and doesn’t expect the outing to be perfect.
“At the end of the day, all that matters in Game One is getting a ‘W’,” he said. “That gives you a chance to come back and regroup and get ready for Game Two.”
With a back-loaded schedule on the horizon, every week in August and September is do-or-die for the Eagles, a team looking to finally make the jump from mediocre to elite.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Senior Staff