Notebook: Special Teams a Bright Spot in Eagles’ Loss to Clemson

Boston College football’s defense played heroically, but it wasn’t enough against the class of the ACC. No. 2 Clemson came into an electric Alumni Stadium on Saturday night and put on a defensive show of its own, capitalizing on an early injury to Eagles quarterback Anthony Brown and limiting BC to 113 total yards of offense. BC kept it close for three quarters and trailed just 13-7 at halftime, but simply couldn’t find any offensive rhythm, eventually falling to the Tigers, 27-7, and losing a chance at a trip to the ACC Championship in the process. Here are some takeaways from the game.

1) Special Teams Shines
When Brown collapsed to the turf on the Eagles’ first drive with what was later termed “an internal injury” by BC head coach Steve Addazio, it felt like the air and hope had been sucked out of Alumni Stadium. Without the Eagles’ first-string signal-caller in the game, it was tough to see BC having a chance to win the game. But BC brought back some of that hope momentarily thanks to special teams, a unit that has been just as inconsistent as any throughout the year.

With the Eagles trailing just 3-0, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was dragged down short of the first down to force a punt. Will Spiers elected to go with a rugby style kick, sending a low line drive right in the direction of Michael Walker. The senior, who leads the country in combined kick return yards, let the ball hop into his hands and took off, breaking one attempted tackle before racing past Clemson defenders and into the end zone next to the student section as the stadium erupted. It was the only time BC scored all game, and an incredible moment for Walker, who has been within inches of breaking returns for touchdowns before.

Special teams tried to pick up the Eagles once again in the second quarter. An aborted snap killed what initially looked to be a promising Eagles drive, and on 4th-and-49 Grant Carlson was sent out to punt, down, 13-7. He booted a high-arcing ball into the night sky that Amari Rodgers was unable to handle. The ball bounced off the Clemson returner’s hands—perhaps due to Taj-Amir Torres clipping him slightly—and was recovered by Torres just before going out of bounds. Though the Eagles eventually punted, that play could have been a huge momentum changer, and it was mostly due to Carlson’s kick, which was well placed and high enough to allow the coverage to hustle downfield to Rodgers.

In fact, Carlson was arguably one of BC’s best players Saturday, as he averaged 43.3 yards per kick on 12 punts, and consistently put the Eagles’ defense in favorable situations.

2) Confusing Play-Calling
After Brown’s injury, command of the offense fell to E.J. Perry, the sophomore who looked promising in limited action against Purdue, Massachusetts, and Holy Cross earlier in the season. Clemson and its formidable defensive front is obviously a different challenge than those three teams, but the ability that Perry displayed against those three teams at least gave a modicum of optimism that the Eagles wouldn’t look entirely inept when he entered the game.

Perry finished the game 12-of-21 for 98 yards, and made a couple impressive throws, most notably on a 17-yard completion on a slant to Kobay White in the second quarter, but any chance he had to show just what he could do was torpedoed by the plays that he was asked to run.

As soon as Perry entered the game, BC became noticeably more conservative with its play-calling and play design. Instead of letting Perry throw the ball down the field, as the Eagles have done so often this season with Brown, BC barely even let him throw, often resorting to a read-option or speed-option that utilized him as a runner or simply giving the ball to A.J. Dillon, even when Clemson began to move eight and even nine men into the box.

And when the sophomore quarterback did drop back to pass, the called pass was often a short out or flare route to the sideline, throws that are easy but also don’t pick up very many yards on a consistent basis. Certainly, it was foolish to expect that Perry would be able to carve up one of the best defenses in the country, but he also wasn’t helped by play-calling that was both ultra-conservative and seemingly not in BC’s normal offensive playbook.

It didn’t take the Tigers’ defense long to figure out what was happening either. Dillon found himself continually frustrated by the amount of defenders he had to run through to gain even one or two yards, and defensive backs started anticipating the flat routes that Perry was throwing and delivering brutal hits on the intended pass-catcher. BC definitely faced an uphill battle against a Clemson team that entered the game ranked first in the ACC in scoring defense, but when the plays the Eagles were running became telegraphed, the culminating effect was a putrid offense that averaged under two yards per play and managed just eight first downs all game.

3) Deep Balls and Double Moves
For the second-straight year, despite offensive ineptitude, the BC defense played well enough to give the Eagles a fighting chance. The Tigers did gain 424 yards offensively, and Trevor Lawrence completed 29-of-40 passes for 295 yards, but that doesn’t properly capture the effort that BC displayed Saturday night. The Eagles held Clemson to 5-of-15 on third down, limited the Tigers to just seven offensive points in the second half, and played with passion all night long. Zach Allen was especially impressive, racking up four tackles to go along with a pair of pass deflections.

The one play BC did struggle with was the deep ball, especially on the double move. It began on the first series of the game, when Hamp Cheevers bit on a pump fake from Lawrence and allowed Rodgers to get behind him for a 41-yard gain. Later in the first quarter, Tee Higgins beat Brandon Sebastian down the right sideline and was able to reel in a contested fade over the smaller cornerback. It could have been worse for the Eagles, but Lawrence just barely missed a couple of other open streaking receivers later in the game. Much like the Virginia Tech game, a lot of the struggles could be chalked up to a size difference. After all, Cheevers is 5-foot-9 and Sebastian 5-foot-10, while Higgins stands 6-foot-4, and Derion Kendrick—the target on a couple of Lawrence’s other deep balls—is 6 feet tall.

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor

November 11, 2018