It’s Orange Britches season y’all. Strange to think Clemson could play in six more games yet won’t wear the normal white pants in any of them. Aside from purple bottoms next week against Duke, every remaining game is a championship game (division, state, conference, bowl, and potential natty in that order). The best time of year has arrived.
Boston College has quietly progressed through 2018 with the sort of season many of us here expected, though a blowout loss to Purdue and an uninspired loss to NC State sent the Eagles plunging under the radar despite no other losses. Although BC is ranked in the top 20, I think this has more to do with the extreme lack of parity or good teams outside the top 6 than any particular BC achievements, and I’m honestly surprised this contest warrants College Gameday and a prime time start. But polls still exist even though #7 through #25 have never been worse, and I’m not complaining since this eliminates the slightest chance of a Clemson letdown; championship phase is engaged with the appropriate fanfare.
BC brings a surprisingly average defense to this contest relative to its stingy defenses under former coordinator Don Brown; the conventional stats are pedestrian and the advanced stats are downright unkind. This plus AJ Dillon’s injuries have nearly as much to do with the lack of buzz around the Eagles as the ACC’s poor perception as a whole (don’t let four ranked teams in this division fool you; the playoff committee is propping up the ACC just as it is the SEC). Because of this, I feel a lack of buzz is warranted after watching BC throughout the year.
BC was widely expected to contend with NC State for 2nd in the Atlantic this year and technically they could steal the division from Clemson’s grasp Saturday. But the way they’ve performed leaves much to be desired despite their 7-2 record, and lends to the sense of seemingly unmet expectations when that truly hasn’t been the case; they are still alive in the ACC title race.
Each of the past two years, I said there was nowhere to go but down for this defense following Brown’s departure, yet the damage was largely mitigated and BC still fielded respectable defenses. Another year removed from Brown, and the cracks have begun to show.
BC still employs a 1 gap 4-3 predicated on line penetration and havoc. More often than not they’ll keep Sam linebacker Kevin Bletzer on the field and roll the safeties to the strong side against 11 personnel, leaving the single high free safety in the deep middle. This is the look I expect we’ll see the most Saturday, since Clemson’s run game is still too dangerous even with Trevor Lawrence’s emergence.
They still like to keep seven in the box to deter the run and will thus play cover 3 and man cover 1 on standard downs, with plenty of interior blitzes for good measure.
The strength of the unit has been the defensive line, particularly ends Wyatt Ray and especially Zach Allen, who possesses surprising quickness to complement his ideal size and strength.
BC doesn’t have the secondary talent to get away with the aggressive man coverages it wants to employ, and the soft zones it employs behind its blitzes have been picked apart when the pressure is recognized or picked up. Much like the receiving unit on offense, the skill players and pass defense are BC’s weakness. They’ve survived against many of the lesser regarded offenses on the schedule, and the Purdue and NC State losses shouldn’t be surprising at all considering their strength through the air.
So we’ll find a far more conservative approach on obvious passing downs, where BC brings in nickel and dime packages and rolls with a lot of cover 2:
When BC does choose to play aggressively in its nickel and 3rd down dime, we’ll find man coverage and disguised pressure:
This defense is an inherently aggressive unit which will take its chances and play conservatively only situationally. It’s a strong, senior-laden front seven comprised entirely of upperclassmen. Running lanes will be clogged and gaps should be filled. Though weaker on the back end, the secondary is also a veteran unit and doesn’t bust coverages; they’re more likely to be burned in man coverage or provide too much cushion behind blitzes than commit mental errors.
This is still the best BC team in a decade and they will provide a serious challenge whether Dillon plays or not. They’ll throw plenty of gadget plays and reverse passes regardless; it’s their style and it makes up for their plodding, pro-style, one-dimensional offense. It’s actually insanely fun, which normally is the last thought to enter your mind when you think BC football.
With Dillon’s colossal threat on the ground and BC’s excellent tight ends (the true bane for the Clemson defense), BC very well could find more success offensively than many would think for a pro-style team without any threats outside. Dillon is likely the best running back in the country when healthy and the tight ends — led by Tommy Sweeney — are a mismatch for linebackers who struggle in coverage.
Without a healthy Dillon though, BC will struggle to establish its one dimension, and I don’t think they can move the ball through the air well enough at all to mount a serious threat. Anthony Brown is easily the most talented QB BC has had since Matt Ryan, but has only eclipsed 200 yards passing in two games this year: UMass and Wake Forest. There’s no way to sugarcoat this; it’s pretty damn bad.
I hate to oversimplify, but whether this game is close or not comes down to the health of AJ Dillon. If he plays, Clemson should eventually pull away when its depth overwhelms BC (see last year’s contest); if not, Clemson runs away with it as soon as the offense gets on track. BC won’t be as stingy against the run as NC State and FSU, but they’ll still look to make Trevor Lawrence beat them. Against an overmanned secondary and more delayed blitzes than instantaneous havoc, Lawrence will find the openings and guide the offense to a win.