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Boston College Offensive Preview: Bring On the Soaring Eagles Passing Game

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It’s the nega 2019 offense, basically

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s preview was a bit of a swing and a miss. I was low on Syracuse after their roster was decimated by attrition, and forgot that the Orange’s mascot has strange and mysterious powers.

What secrets are you hiding Warlock?

But also, honestly, I’m not that worried about the defense’s performance. Syracuse scored three times, once off a blocked punt flipping the field, once by burning a backup safety they isolated with tempo (admittedly, a bad situation to wind up in), and once on a pick six.

When you consider that and the inability of the offense to move the ball consistently, I don’t think the defense played that poorly. Not every week is going to be 73-7. College athletes are insanely young. Think about how reliable you were at twenty. Bad days happen. We just had a Heisman candidate struggle with cramps because of a light breakfast.

What I am concerned about going forward are the things that we see happening week after week. Namely, the blocked kicks, the interior running game struggling, and issues finding “the guy” at outside WR.

But that’s beyond the purview of this article. We’re here to talk about Boston College’s new offense under first year head coach Jeff Hafley (formerly the DC at Ohio State) and OC Frank Cignetti, formerly QB coach for the Packers and Giants.

In a twist that would have boggled the mind of conventional football wisdom pretty recently, Cignetti’s “pro-style” offense means that the Eagles have had to learn how to operate out of the shotgun as opposed to under center.

This offense is diametrically opposed to previous iterations from Boston College, which were based around a bruising running game. It was not unheard of for the team to have multiple running backs near a thousand yards in a season, but the passing game languished. Now the offense runs through the trio of 4 star transfer QB Phil Jurkovec, TE Hunter Long, and WR Zay Flowers. The passing game has become formidable, while last year’s running game has fallen off a cliff.

I’m a little baffled by what’s happened to the running game. The offensive line returns four starters from last year, and all four received some form of all-ACC recognition. Starting RB David Bailey was excellent as AJ Dillon’s understudy last season. Dillon even repeatedly said that Bailey would pick up where he left off. Jurkovec is a good athlete, with the size (6’5”, 225 lbs.) and speed to contribute on the ground.

Some of this is just touches. Last year, Boston College backs could bank on carrying the ball thirty to forty times per game. This year it’s more in the mid-twenties. Perhaps the offense is just establishing an identity through the air. Hafley has said that Bailey’s time would come, and the Eagles were able to carve up Georgia Tech on the ground last week. Bailey is a big bruising back (6’0”, 236 lbs.) who has the speed to break the occasional big run. He had 844 yards last year on a higher YPC than AJ Dillon.

Despite that, the running game is performing like one of the worst in the country, with the Eagles averaging a paltry 3.5 YPC. While removing sack yardage from the equation helps Boston College significantly, they still only grade out at 4.1 YPC without it. The loss of a first team All-ACC guard and RB from 2019 helps explain some of that, but the drop off is still astonishing to me.

Given their season-long struggles, I’m looking at Boston College being able to run on the Yellowjackets as an aberration until shown otherwise. The offensive line often struggles with penetration, and it takes Bailey a bit of time to reach top speed. The combination ends with him being met in the backfield consistently. The loss of Skalski looms large here, but I expect BC to struggle on the ground against Clemson’s defensive line.

The Eagles use unbalanced formations and motion to try to mess with defense’s run fits. They’ll hand the ball off to shifty star WR Zay Flowers once or twice a game to punish defenses that don’t respect the motion.

Jurkovec is a boom-or-bust runner, particularly on scrambles. If you remove sack yards from the equation he’s ripping off over 7 YPC, but that elides the fact he’s been sacked quite a bit (18 times in 6 games), and those sacks are costly (he’s lost 144 yards on them).

Venables has been able to use spies effectively to shut down scrambling QB’s in the past (Simmons was absurdly good at it), but doing so requires making compromises. Jurkovec is good enough with his legs to demand attention in ways that inevitably hinder the pass rush or pass coverage.

The Eagles have a pair of good tight ends and make use of them, with starting TE Hunter Long perhaps being the best player on this side of the ball and a focal point of this offense. Long is a dangerous receiving threat downfield, looks impossibly nimble for his size in the open field, and the blocking is admittedly a work in progress.

Backup Spencer Witter is Long’s opposite, a nasty blocker with just three receptions this season. If you look at the top of the screen on the gif above you can see him throwing around some poor Pitt defender. Despite the struggles on the ground, the play-action pass and RPO game have benefited from being able to make use of the duo as blockers or targets.

The contrast between the two also allows Cignetti to do some interesting things switching between 11 and 12 personnel by shifting Long around. Cignetti is a fan of using bunch formations, either for the blocking angles they provide or to confuse defenders in the passing game.

Jurkovec is a good drop back passer, capable of progressing through reads and making strong throws downfield. He’s averaging 12 yards per completion while completing 62.5% of his passes. Second- and third-leading receivers CJ Lewis and Jaelyn Gill have done well against defenses geared towards stopping Long and Flowers. All four of the aforementioned names have at least one TD reception and one 35+ yard catch, this offense is a threat to score every time Jurkovec drops back.

There are two big problems that could rear their heads for the passing game. One, it’s entirely possible to get pressure on Jurkovec without blitzing.

Two, once you do get pressure it’s possible to turn Jurkovec over. Almost every unbelievable throw or escape from pressure seems to be matched by a ball that could be picked off or by taking a costly sack. So far there has been more “no, no, no, YES” than “yes, yes, yes, NO” to his game, but that can always backfire.

I have a hard time seeing an offense this one-dimensional being able to upset the Tigers. There’s reason to believe Boston College has dormant potential running the ball (many of the same players were part of a great running offense recently), but I’m not banking on it against a strong Clemson run defense.

Jurkovec’s ability to generate big plays pushing the ball downfield makes the Eagles significantly more explosive than years past. His tendency to take sacks or throw bad passes when searching for big plays could easily take Boston College out of this game. I struggle to see an offensive line that has disappointed all year turning it around in pass or run blocking.

Halfley and Cignetti have done a great job this season, turning the Eagles into a modern offense with an exciting passing game. There’s every reason for fans in Boston to optimistic going forward. But SP+ gives the Tigers a 94% chance to win and Vegas views BC as 30+ point underdogs for good reasons. It’s going to take an exceptional game for this offense just to keep up with Lawrence, Etienne, and Co., if they come out firing on all cylinders.