Notebook: Dillon Stars in Return, Defense Impresses

When the ESPN cameras cut to Boston College football head coach Steve Addazio on the sideline after his quarterback Anthony Brown kneeled out the clock on a 27-14 win over Miami, fans were greeted with a beaming, end-to-end smile. It was an understandable reaction for the much-maligned Eagles head coach, who is finally off to a 6-2 start for the first time during his six-year stay in Chestnut Hill, and has just clinched bowl eligibility for the third year in a row.

It was a big win, without a doubt, especially one for a program that welcomed back its marquee running back A.J. Dillon and was facing one of the country’s top defensive teams. The primetime game in front of a packed—and loud—Alumni Stadium featured an impressive opening surge from the Eagles, who displayed plenty of poise on the big stage.

Here are three thoughts the day after BC’s Red Bandanna Game victory over the visiting Hurricanes.

1) Even at less than 100 percent, Dillon is a force to be reckoned with

The fog of mystery surrounding the Eagles’ 245-pound preseason Heisman candidate coming into this week was thick. Yes, Addazio said that he’d be ready for the Friday night matchup, but people were right to be cautious—Dillon was a “game-time decision” for each of the last two matchups and, of course, didn’t play. The fog was cleared up almost immediately, though, as Dillon found a seam through the left side of the line and ran for a 25-yard gain on his first play from scrimmage. It was just the opening salvo of a 32-carry night for the sophomore, as he rumbled for 132 yards and a touchdown in his return.

It was clear on that opening play, though, that he wasn’t 100 percent—there wasn’t the same speed or physicality he displayed at the start of the year when Miami’s Sheldrick Redwine closed on him and dragged him to the ground. Dillon even admitted to that in his postgame conference, saying, “I should have just trusted my speed—I was thinking about the ankle in the first run.”

Despite not playing at full strength, Dillon was still good enough against a stout Hurricanes defense. He only averaged four yards per carry on his other 31 rushing attempts, but that was enough to help carry the offense when he needed to. Dillon routinely touched the ball in succession on first and second downs, and while predictable, largely had results. He converted a first down on BC’s second touchdown drive of the game with runs of seven and four yards, then, on second-and-8, unleashed a Madden-esque 20-yard run to set up a Colton Lichtenberg field goal. At one point, he found himself seemingly trapped behind a blocker some seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, but in a flash of what Eagles fans grew accustomed to last season, he cut back inside and sprinted forward for a lengthy gain.

His lone touchdown was a backbreaker for Miami, too. In the third quarter, Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier threw consecutive interceptions that set BC up for short scoring drives. Down three, Miami was able to hold the Eagles to a field goal after the first turnover, but it was Dillon who put them away after the second. Up 20-14, the sophomore back took a handoff from the shotgun, bounced it outside, and ran to the pylon for a 14-yard touchdown that capped the scoring and sucked the life out of any fourth-quarter comeback attempt from the Hurricanes.

2) BC’s defense was better than Miami’s well-known unit

All of the attention that Miami’s defense has warranted the last few years, with its “turnover chain” and high-intensity vibe, seemed misplaced on Friday night. Instead, it was Jim Reid’s defense that owned the day, holding the Hurricanes to just two scores while piling up three sacks and two interceptions. The Eagles, protecting a slim 17-14 halftime lead, played their best football when they needed it the most. After the break, Miami had six drives, most coming when the game was within a touchdown. They went as follows—interception, interception, punt, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, and turnover on downs. It was a remarkable performance from the Eagles, who have struggled against quality opponents, namely North Carolina State and Purdue, in weeks past.

The list of players to highlight is long, but two in particular stood out—cornerback Brandon Sebastian and linebacker Isaiah McDuffie. Sebastian has struggled at times this year with coverage breakdowns, but he took on a starring role, breaking up a pair of passes and making two tackles, both on third downs. McDuffie, meanwhile, gobbled up anything that came his way in the middle of the field, racking up a team-high 12 tackles, six of which were solo efforts. The sophomore is third on the team in tackles this season, a big step up after appearing in just seven games last season and recording just seven total tackles.

There are countless big plays from the unit to single out, but the obvious one that stands out came in the fourth quarter. With BC up, 27-14, Miami had started a drive down the stretch of the third and had methodically moved downfield. The Hurricanes had gotten the ball because of a questionable throw by Brown that Romeo Finley had intercepted around midfield. Five quick plays later—including a Malik Rosier 21-yard scramble—Miami had first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Rosier grabbed a gain of six on first down, but the next three downs were symbolic of how tough the BC defense was. With a two-score lead and three yards to protect, the Eagles came through.

First, Zach Allen, who poked fun at the turnover chain in his postgame press conference, stood up Miami running back Deejay Dallas for no gain. Then, on third down, Dallas tried to catch BC’s defense off guard with a wildcat run around the right side, but he was dragged down before he could get to the pylon. Finally, in the biggest stop of the day, it was Taj-Amir Torres—a senior that nabbed an interception a few drives earlier—who broke up a pass to the right edge of the end zone to force the turnover on downs.

Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt even singled out the play after.

“The most disappointing thing is first-and-goal at the nine [yard line], not being able to score the touchdown to put us within six,” he said. “That was tough. Just didn’t happen.”

3) Not to jump the gun, but things are starting to look pretty good for the Eagles

Coming into the season, a lot of people looked at BC’s schedule and projected, somewhat tentatively, something around a 5-0 start to the season. Cupcake games against Massachusetts and Holy Cross were easy wins, and it wasn’t exactly a murderers row of opponents that followed—Wake Forest, Purdue, and Temple all entered with less than high expectations. After that, though—save matchups with Louisville and Syracuse—the Eagles were staring down a brutal schedule, with five games against opponents that were either in the AP Preseason Top 25 or receiving votes. So, after starting 4-1, an inevitable fall back to earth was expected.

That’s not the case. BC struggled against the Wolfpack in a disappointing loss, but has rebounded by recording back-to-back wins, all while looking the part of a marquee bowl game contender. The Eagles thoroughly outplayed the visiting Cardinals to no surprise, and followed it up with a post-bye week resume-building win over a Miami team that has crashed out of the top-25 polls since debuting at No. 8. Even their blowout loss to Purdue looks better in hindsight—the Boilermakers entered their Saturday afternoon game against Michigan State winners of four straight, including an upset of then-No. 2 Ohio State.

So, on paper, the Eagles are 6-2, won their first big game of the year against Miami, and enter their toughest stretch with Dillon back and momentum on their side. The first opponent is Virginia Tech, another ACC team that has fallen from great heights—the Hokies, who fell to Old Dominion earlier this year in one of the biggest upsets of the season, were blown out by Georgia Tech (yes, Georgia Tech, an incredibly streaky 4-4 team) on Thursday night. VTech is at risk of losing two of its famed streaks, with bowl eligibility being an uphill climb. Yes, that game is on the road, but if the Eagles play as well as they did for long stretches against the Hurricanes, BC could be aiming for its eighth win of the season—a mark it hasn’t reached since 2009—when No. 2 Clemson comes to town on Nov. 10.

Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Staff

October 28, 2018