It’s been quite a shame that out of Clemson’s entire 12-game schedule, both of its night games have been on the road while Tiger fans have been subject to noon games at home. Regardless, this one will be for all of the ACC’s marbles as the Tigers travel to Chestnut Hill to face off against the Boston College Eagles. For Clemson, even with their undefeated record, it’s survive and advance.
Since taking over as head coach, Dabo Swinney has effectively orchestrated dominance over Boston College, having won the last seven matchups. The Eagles’ last win coming in 2010, a year where the Tigers went 6-7 in Swinney’s sole losing record as a head coach. Now, he’ll face what is easily the best Boston College team in that time span.
No matter what year it is, Clemson fans can count on Boston College to bring a strong physical game on their offensive and defensive lines. This year is no exception, especially with AJ Dillon leading the way at running back. With 897 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, and an average of 5.5 yards per carry, Dillon has been the Eagles’ workhorse back and engine to their entire offense. While not possessing top-end speed, Dillon is a bruiser who consistently grinds out yards and gives Boston College the ability to keep the ball away from opposing offenses and opens up the play-action game for quarterback Anthony Brown. The Eagles’ ground game has been the strength of their offense averaging 225.6 yards per game, which ranks 23rd in the country.
However, Dillon has nursed a sprained ankle over the past month and his health will be key to how effective he remains against a Clemson defense ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed at 90.4 yards per game. While the Eagles have made use of other options such as Travis Levy (177 yards, yards, two touchdowns), Ben Glines (376 yards, three touchdowns), and David Bailey (230 yards, two touchdowns), it’s clear that the Eagles won’t have a chance against Clemson without a big game from Dillon.
By comparison, Brown will also have to step up against a top-flight defense. Brown has shown more improvement as a passer this season, raising his statistics across the board in important areas such as completion percentage (51.9 to 57.9) and passer rating (103.5 to 141.8). In 2018, he has thrown for 1,567 yards, 16 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. Add in his mobility, and Brown shows flashes of what he could be. However, Brown still demonstrates weaknesses when throwing from the pocket and going through his progressions. The Eagles’ struggles in the passing game are well documented, as the team only ranks 84th in passing yards with 214.6 yards per game.
With such a passing game, Boston College’s receiving corps has left much to be desired, especially from a statistical standpoint. The Eagles have gotten by with a combination of Kobay White (314 yards, three touchdowns), Jeff Smith (259 yards, four touchdowns), Tommy Sweeney (230 yards, three touchdowns), and Glines (123 yards, three touchdowns). With no clear-cut number one option or dynamic playmaker in the passing game, Boston College has been live or die by their running game.
Of course, Boston College has also lived on the back of its defense. It was this defense that gave Clemson’s offense fits last year, and it was only thanks to the late-game heroics of one Travis Etienne that the Tigers left with a 34-7 win, which was much closer than the score indicated. This time around, while the Tigers have Trevor Lawrence and a resurgent passing game coupled with a full-time starting Etienne, Boston College has threats of its own that will be stiff test for the Tigers’ freshman quarterback.
BC’s defense, however, has been a more vulnerable in recent years at time. The Eagle rank 41st in total defense, and 52nd in points allowed (25.4 per game). This defense has not been as stingy in years past and present opportunities for a Clemson offense peaking at the right time. BC is a team that could’ve given Clemson headaches early in the season, especially when the Tigers were in quarterback limbo. However, BC’s defense is not without talent, and Clemson’s ability to neutralize these players on offense could determine how effective the Tiger’s offense can be in the early phases of the game.
One of BC’s primary threats is defensive end Wyatt Ray, a stout defensive end who is tied for fifth in the country in sacks (9). Unlike Brian Burns from Florida State, Ray is strong enough at the point of attack to both hold against the run and beat the tackle around the edge. Boston College ranks 46th in rushing yards allowed (144.6 yards per game), and Ray will be a big factor in getting pressure on Lawrence. Opposite Ray, Zach Allen has had himself a solid season, compiling 5.5 sacks. Like Ray, he moves well for his stout size and ability to get around the edge. Clemson tackles Mitch Hyatt and Tremayne Anchrum should have their hands full all-game.
Hamp Cheevers is a ballhawk for the Eagles at corner, nabbing five interceptions on the year, a feat which has the junior corner tied for second-most in the country. BC ranks 56th in passing yards allowed (221.8 yards per game), and Cheevers will likely be tasked with finding a way to limit Tee Higgins. With the exception of Louisville, teams have been opting to attempt shutting down the run first to make Clemson beat them through the air. Thus far, NC State and Florida State paid a heavy price as Lawrence and the Tigers’ dynamic receiving threats made them pay. An interception or two could potentially go a long way in not only Boston College maintaining an upset bid, but also in keeping Clemson’s offense from establishing an early rhythm and further limiting their possessions.
If there’s been a weakness of Lawrence and the Clemson offense, it’s been their slow starts during away games. Clemson-Florida State game was scoreless at the end of the first quarter, and it took costly, undisciplined mistakes from the Seminoles for the Tigers to get their first score, which gave them time to settle into the game. If Boston College is going to have a chance, it could come in that first quarter if they’re able to limit Clemson’s offense early. Lawrence is talented, no doubt, but how he responds to the cold November air in Chestnut Hill at night could be something to watch early. Given BC’s defensive struggles this year, especially in the secondary, Lawrence could have another big day. Even with Cheevers, Clemson has a hyrda worth of options at receiver, and no defensive back has managed to truly limit Higgins all year. Look for Justyn Ross to get plenty of looks, especially out of the slot.
On offense, Dilllon’s health is critical for BC. If his ankle limits him, the Eagles could find difficulty moving the ball consistently against this defense. With a limited passing game against a Clemson secondary that has held up against upper-echelon passing teams like Syracuse and NC State, the Eagles need creative means to move the football in ways of screens, draws, and misdirection. Unless they’re able to consistently pressure Lawrence in the passing game and hit big plays downfield on offense, Clemson’s talent could likely prove too much for BC to overcome, even on a cold night at home in Chestnut Hill.