“Bully ball” hasn’t had a great season. Stanford has fallen off, LSU is lighting the world on fire after switching to the spread and offensive problems played a key part in recent Wisconsin and Georgia upsets. Alabama gave in years ago, the top of college football is a spread world now. Basketball on grass wasn’t a joke, “tempo” and “spacing” are essential tools for top offenses.
There’s still value in slowing things down for underdogs, and running the ball is how you do that. This is the approach the service academies have taken, committing to the triple option as a way to shorten the game. The less total plays (and more importantly, offensive possessions) a game has, the greater the likelihood of variance. When conventional wisdom says that you should lose, variance is your friend.
Boston College will be coming into Death Valley at 4-3, with only a pair of last minute losses to Louisville and Wake Forest keeping them from 6-1. The Eagles have one of the best running games in the country, and have leaned on it even more heavily since losing QB Anthony Brown to injury. Replacement QB Dennis Grosel has a completion percentage below 40%. They didn’t pass much before, but since Brown was injured Boston College has all but abandoned the drop back pass. Dabo described last weeks film as “like watching 1990 all over again watching the tape”. Boston College has no plan for third and long, but they might be able to run the ball well enough to make that not matter Saturday. Despite a horrible year through the air Addazio’s squad is 32nd in offensive SP+.
If Boston College is going to pull an upset they’re going to have to keep the score low. The Eagles first touchdown against the Wolfpack came via INT return, and the BC defense only allowed three points in the first half. If that happens again it’ll be out of character. The Eagles are 94th in defensive SP+ and can’t expect much help from a special teams unit ranked 110th. AJ Dillon and David Bailey are incredibly physical runners (averaging 5.4 and 6.3 YPC), if you keep giving them chances your defense is going to wear down. Clemson’s undersized front (neither defensive tackle lists over 300 lbs.) has been good against the run, but you’d prefer to force Grosel to throw as much as possible. This is the most “Boston College” Boston College team I have ever seen.
The offensive line is very good. They rank well in line yards (27th) and opportunity rate (22nd), which matches the eye test. The Eagles backs routinely have holes to run through and they aren’t often stuffed in the backfield. They’re even better in third and fourth and short (14th), where they often use tempo to race to the line of scrimmage and bowl defenses over and also simply are very good at running power. Sometimes they steal a trick from the actual single wing and hurry to the line of scrimmage to run a QB sneak.
The Eagles rank 1st in sacks allowed and 1st in sack rate. Some of that is due to scheme, it’s hard to give up sacks running (according to Dabo) “run, run, run, run, run, boot, play-action, screen and some tricks mixed in there”. BC is doing everything in its power to protect Grosel, who only had fifteen passing attempts in last weeks’ win against NC State. They’ve had to get inventive on third and long.
Boston College operate mostly out of 12 and 11 personnel, moving their tight ends around to create running angles and rotating carries to Dillon and Bailey (250 and 240 lbs., respectively). The pair put up more rushing yards against NC State last week than NC State had allowed all season. If BC is going to make things interesting it’s going to be giving these two the ball every chance it can.
The running game is complex up front. The Eagles run power, pin-pull sweeps and inside zone primarily but they feature quite a bit of counter, regular outside zone and other gap running schemes. The tight ends shift around and BC likes to overload one side of the line of scrimmage with formation (bunch formations, unbalanced etc.) and/or lead blocking tight ends/offensive linemen.
They fake a lot of end-arounds and jet sweeps and hand the ball off often enough to WR Zay Flowers (8.3 YPC) to make the defense respect the fakes. Grosel (6.8 YPC) runs draw a few times a game. All of this is done to create a bit of confusion and hesitation at the start of the play. When the offense is working it’s a game of three card monte that ends with the dealer punching you directly in the face.
The passing game is languishing and it appears to be due to issues at quarterback and receiver. Tight end Hunter Long is excellent, averaging over twenty yards per reception despite leading the team in catches. Backup tight end’s Jake Burt and Korab Idrizi are featured, they each have eleven receptions (tied for 4th on the team), and Idrizi is a red zone weapon when teams forget to account for him (four TD’s). AJ Dillon is a credible receiver. Wide receivers Zay Flowers and Kobay White are big play threats. They are all of the production that Boston College is getting from the receivers, and they aren’t the most consistent.
A lot of the time the Eagles run what appears to be “11 personnel” they are in 12 with a tight end operating as a wide receiver. Partially they are doing this to create matchup problems. Most teams do not have a nickel that can hold up inside or a linebacker who can matchup in coverage. Clemson has one of those, Isaiah Simmons might be better at that than anyone in the country. The other reason Boston College runs this look so much is they have to. Their third leading wide receivers are tied at two receptions each, for a combined total of thirty yards.
If you look past his numbers you can find moments where Grosel has shown potential. He led a good two-minute drill against Louisville and has the arm to push the ball downfield to his tight ends. He’s progressing in his reads in the quick game and benefits from having so many big bodies to throw to underneath. The trips formations that Boston College uses in the run game lend themselves to this style of quick passing as well. Grosel appears uncomfortable on the field but can still execute in manageable situations.
Grosel runs well enough and throws on the move pretty well. He has a tendency to miss open receivers once the play starts to break down, but he’s not going to make a panicked throw and can get out of trouble. The Eagles use his ability to throw on the run on sprint out passes and bootlegs often.
Boston College is a dangerous play-action team because of how well they run the ball and where they throw. Clemson puts eight in the box pretty early against regular offenses, you can expect eight to nine men in the box against the Eagles. Safeties get used to coming up field and making plays against massive running backs over and over. Then you blink for a second and the middle of the field is open behind you. The defensive line is too busy accounting for the run to rush the passer. Grosel isn’t particularly capable of attacking the sidelines, but sometimes he doesn’t have to be. Boston College can manufacture a few looks like this a game when the running game is fully operational.
Man, this is going to be a long night for someone. Boston College only has two functioning wide receivers and one of them has more carries (19) than receptions (14). Grosel would be thrilled to have a a completion percentage above fifty. The Eagles have running backs, an offensive line and tight ends and know how to use them. Boston College has no alternative but to keep running the football. Either they’re going to run because it’s working, and they’ve been able to drag Clemson by the nose into a game it doesn’t want to play, or they’re going to run because the Eagles have no alternative and want this to be over with so they can go home. This could turn into a rock fight.