Through the first five minutes of the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, Boston College football and Cincinnati were matched yard-for-yard, punt-for-punt, and three-and-out for three-and-out until a weather delay threatened the playing out of BC’s postseason game for the second year in a row.
Once play resumed though, it started to seem like the Eagles had simply forgotten to come out of the tunnel. The game’s even pace in its early minutes quickly disappeared, as No. 21 Cincinnati proved it was well-deserving of its AP Top-25 ranking. In Cincinnati’s first two drives before the delay, the Bearcats recorded just 10 total yards, but in the two drives out of the break, they ran all over BC, tallying 142 total yards, ending in a touchdown and a field goal to take an early 10-0 lead. Unfortunately for BC, those two drives predicted the pattern of the rest of the game.
The Eagles’ inability to contain Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder on the ground or create offensive opportunities without star running back AJ Dillon ultimately secured the Bearcats’ win. In the pouring rain, BC QB Dennis Grosel struggled to connect on his passes, and the Eagles couldn’t set up any offensive momentum for most of the game.
Here are four takeaways from BC’s 38-6 postseason loss to Cincinnati:
Ridder’s Dual Threat
The biggest downfall for BC was its inability to control Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder’s dual threat in the pocket. Ridder was unstoppable through the air and on the ground, recording three rushing touchdowns and one passing score. Even more impressive, though, is the fact that Ridder recorded the same number of yards as Cincinnati’s game-leading rusher Michael Warren II with 105. Ridder marched into the end zone untouched three times thanks to his evasiveness and some effective blocks on the outside. BC struggled to stop Ridder’s mobility throughout the game, including a 3rd-and-12 QB draw that went for 22 yards and set up Cincinnati’s first and only field goal.
The Eagles were without many key players, notably AJ Dillon, but another major hole came in the absence of redshirt junior linebacker Max Richardson. This season, Richardson posted a career-high 14 tackles in a single game against Rutgers, as well as four other games with tackle numbers in the double digits. Richardson sat Thursday’s bowl out with a hamstring injury, so redshirt freshman Joe Sparacio got the nod. Cincinnati capitalized on the substitution to collect a staggering 343 yards on 60 carries, many of which came through the WLB window, including a jet sweep to Cincinnati’s Tre Tucker up the left side that went for 32 yards and evaded the weakened linebacking corps.
Pressure Behind the Line of Scrimmage
Even so, Sparicio and the rest of BC’s linebackers did a good job bringing pressure in Cincinnati’s backfield. He and Marcus Valdez combined for a four-yard sack, while Mike Ciaffoni had a solo hit on Ridder for a nine-yard loss. John Lamot and Richard Yeargin also combined for BC’s third sack of the night. Overall, BC recorded 11 total tackles for loss from 12 different players. The linebacking group’s speed and ability to burst through opponents’ offensive lines bodes well for the Eagles, who will return all 11 of their linebackers next season, including well-known names in Richardson, Sparicio, and Vinny DiPalma.
BC wasn’t the only team with backfield pressure, though, as Cincinnati recorded two sacks and eight tackles for loss. Just a few minutes into the game, defensive end Malik Vann timed his jump perfectly and attacked Dennis Grosel for a strip, but Grosel recovered his own fumble to prevent an early and dangerous takeaway. Later, linebacker Ethan Tucky put pressure on Grosel once again, forcing a fumble that Bryan Wright recovered for Cincinnati’s 26th takeaway of the season. BC’s traditionally stoic offensive line gave up a few key openings to Grosel, which cost the Eagles greatly.
Special Teams Pressure
In that same vein, both the Eagles and the Bearcats showed remarkable defensive penetration on the special teams side of the game. First, as BC went for a field goal just seconds into the second quarter, Cincinnati’s Elijah Ponder jumped offsides, which went unnoticed by the officials. This miscue allowed Cincinnati to reach BC kicker Aaron Boumerhi and block the kick. On the Eagles’ side of things, as the Bearcats lined up for a kick of their own much later in the game, Mike Palmer blocked the attempt, which landed right in the hands of the oncoming Brandon Sebastian. Sebastian’s scoop ’n’ score went for 67 for BC’s only trip to the end zone. The Eagles then failed the two-point conversion thanks to Cincinnati’s special teams pressure once again.
The Eagles, looking for just their second postseason win since 2007, came up short once again, but the players—and the fans—are still hopeful. With the ushering in of the Jeff Hafley era, one can only hope that the lightning at the Birmingham Bowl wasn’t an omen of bad news for the new commander in chief. Hafley’s expertise in defense would potentially have been helpful for the Eagles on Thursday afternoon, but they will just have to wait until next preseason to get a taste.
Featured Image by Butch Dill / AP Photo