Sports, Football, Fall

Notebook: Penalties and Pass Rush Almost Cost BC Its Win Against Holy Cross

When you’re ahead by just three points against an FCS team and your oldest New England rival that you haven’t lost to since 1978, receiving a taunting penalty probably isn’t the smartest decision. 

In addition, you’re in your own house, coming off one of the most disappointing Boston College football losses in recent memory, and you’re making your first career start for a new program. 

Clearly BC quarterback Thomas Castellanos wasn’t thinking about these repercussions when he made an obscene gesture after picking up five yards on a quarterback scramble on third and long—a scramble in which he didn’t even pick a first down. Instead, the Eagles were sent back 15 yards and forced to punt. 

“I wasn’t even thinking about getting the first down,” Castellanos said. “It was an intense game. They were talking, we were talking.”

Castellanos’ penalty was just one of 10 penalties the Eagles committed on Saturday—a week after BC head coach Jeff Hafley emphasized that BC’s nine penalties in Week One killed its chances. 

Nineteen penalties across two games isn’t just on the players, though. It’s on the coaches. Mostly the head coach, but also the entire staff. 

“Undisciplined penalties … I’ll put that on me,” Hafley said. “It’s gotta go right down to our position coaches. We got to … teach these guys and show them what’s acceptable, what’s not. Ultimately, [I] won’t play players that do it.”

Until Hafley’s words reach the field, the Eagles will likely continue to play in painstakingly close games where they shoot themselves in the foot and execute sloppy football. 

Here are three observations from BC’s Week Two win over Holy Cross.

Penalties, Penalties, Penalties

If it wasn’t obvious what the biggest issue on Saturday was, here it is: BC’s 10 penalties accounted for 109 lost yards, and many of them occurred during crucial moments that almost cost the Eagles the game. There was Castellanos’ lapse of judgment, but none was worse than Neto Okpala’s fourth-quarter penalty. 

On 3rd-and-21, on BC’s 38-yard line, Vinny DePalma brought down Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka, which would have become the Eagles’ second sack of the season. But the play was scrapped, as Okpala committed a hands-to-the-face penalty that resulted in an automatic first down. Three plays later, the Crusaders scored on a Jordan Fuller 15-yard rush to cut BC’s lead to 31–28.

Two of the Eagles’ penalties occurred on kickoffs, either giving the Crusaders better field position or hunting BC’s. Four seconds into the second quarter, Joe Marinaro committed a personal foul on a Holy Cross kickoff, forcing BC to start its drive at its own 9-yard line. On a BC kickoff later that quarter, Sione Hala picked up a personal foul of his own, allowing Holy Cross to start its drive on the 50-yard line. Four plays later, the Crusaders scored to cut BC’s lead to 21–14. 

After recording zero penalties in the first quarter, BC had three in the second quarter, four in the third, and three in the fourth. Luckily for the Eagles, Holy Cross committed 11 penalties for 98 lost yards. 

Where are the Sacks?

Heading into the season, BC’s defensive line was touted as one of the Eagles’ best units. Led by junior Donovan Ezeiruaku, who was named to the 2023 All-ACC Preseason Team and totaled 8.5 sacks in 2022, BC featured a deep roster of pass rushers. 

Graduate student and defensive end Shitta Sillah was a force in 2021, Okpala boasted a solid training camp, DePalma returned for his sixth season on the Heights, junior Bryce Steele returned—but has yet to play due to a medical issue—and Kam Arnold was coming off a promising season. Transfers George Rooks and Caleb Jones also joined the mix. 

Yet, the Eagles have notched one sack through two games this season. 

Across both games, Northern Illinois and Holy Cross quarterbacks, respectively, have managed ample time to let plays develop and scramble out of the pocket to pick up easy yards. The Crusaders ran all over BC on Saturday, registering 264 yards—62 more yards than BC—and four rushing touchdowns. 

Holy Cross’ 6.8 yards per carry was also a staggering number. The Crusaders only registered 130 non-rushing yards all game, but BC couldn’t prevent Sluka and Fuller from manhandling them on the ground. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed, or else Florida State might put up record-breaking numbers at Alumni Stadium next week. 

Offensive Line Revival

Perhaps the biggest surefire positive from the game was BC’s offensive line success. The Eagles allowed zero sacks, and Castellanos had plenty of time all game. It’s a refreshing sight to see after watching Phil Jurkovec and Emmett Morehead get pummeled all of last year and hardly have any room to attempt deep passes. 

Most importantly, the line held up when it mattered most. BC was 5 for 5 on redzone trips on Saturday, and is now 7 for 7 on the year. The Eagles’ rushing attack has subsequently been reignited, as transfer back Kye Robichaux, who played in place of an injured Alex Broome, rushed for 94 yards on 19 carries and tacked on one touchdown. Robichaux averaged 4.9 yards per carry. 

Castellanos also rushed for 69 yards on 16 rushes. Wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe even took a handoff for a score—a 14-yard rush in the second quarter. BC now has three rushing touchdowns on the year. In 2022, the Eagles accumulated just six rushing touchdowns in the entire season. 

BC totaled 45 rushes on Saturday, and such success warrants the Eagles to lean heavily into the ground game, which is something they just couldn’t do last season. It all comes down to the O-line, composed of Kyle Hergel, Logan Taylor, Drew Kendall, Ozzy Trapilo, and Christian Mahogany, who opens up gaping holes in the ground arena and protects from the pass rush with its blocking. 

New offensive line coach Matt Applebaum has this unit playing the most disciplined out of any unit on BC’s roster, which is something that will need to continue if the Eagles want to continue winning football games. 

September 10, 2023