Times are tough in upstate South Carolina, with the Clemson Tigers effectively eliminated from College Football Playoff contention for the first time since 2014. The Tigers’ offense has been brutal to watch, but there is a lot of season left with plenty still to play for, and if nothing else, it’s an opportunity to watch this team learn and grow.
This weekend, Clemson (2-2, 1-1 in ACC) returns home to face the Boston College Eagles (4-0, 0-0 in ACC) in Death Valley for a third straight year, thanks to last year’s weird schedule induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Another streak that lives on this year is my partnering with Niraj Patel from BC Interruption, Boston College’s SB Nation site, on another Q&A series. You can give Niraj a Twitter follow here.
STS: When I think of Boston College, I think of a physical team that leans on defense, a power running game, and strong receiving tight ends. Looking at their season stats so far, some of that appears to be true, but the Eagles are also averaging 41.3 points per game (which is about twice as much as Clemson!), and their leading receiver is actually a wide receiver (Zay Flowers), and not a tight end. What would you say is the identity of this BC team so far this season?
BCI: Gone are the days of this old version of BC, and I think gone are the days of BC being pigeon-holed into any clean-cut identity. Last season in Jeff Hafley’s first year, the Eagles all but abandoned the run game, had of course an elite tight end, and a transitioning defense that wasn’t really leaned on. This year, we’ve seen the team rely on the run game and its physical offensive line (which is probably the identity of the team historically). Now, much of that is due to the competition and the big personnel change at quarterback I’m sure I’ll get to later, but it just goes to show that the team will look to compete in whatever way is optimal.
Hafley and the coaching staff still want to employ strong receiving tight ends, and the hope is to be a vertical passing game. They have a plethora of offensive weapons that they trust, and again that strong offensive line game. On the flipside, the vision is about executing the fundamentals. Hafley’s a defensive backs guru, so that’s ultimately where the strength will lie in years to come — and definitely still is this year. But he knows how much it’s a collective effort and that the defensive line will need to generate a lot more pressure than they have since he’s been in charge. He wants to be a fast defense that has everyone running to the ball.
STS: Related, second-year head coach Jeff Hafley seems to have instilled a good culture for BC. How would you characterize your outlook with him at the helm, both short-term and long-term?
BCI: It’s all roses right now. Hafley has brought new-found life to a jaded fanbase. Last week’s win over Mizzou was indicative of the buzz around him. A toss-up, non-conference game; BC has had some struggles with those sorts of games in the past, but they came out on top — and won in a way that was almost unheard of under previous regimes. They withstood a double-digit comeback, an absurd game-tying field goal, and made a winning play in overtime. Not to mention the actually-good clock management and a long made kick of our own!
He’s built a culture built on trust and family. He really looks up to Dabo in that sort of way. I truly believe Hafley can bring BC back to a place it was in the mid-to-late 2000’s, competing highly in the conference and having more consistency. With him, I think they can entrench themselves in the higher tier, maybe a perennial dark horse to win the conference.
STS: Quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who can really sling the ball and as such, started to move BC away from that traditional identity I mentioned (in a positive way), is out for the season with a hand injury. While that’s a significant blow, backup Dennis Grosel appears to have stepped in capably, as the Eagles remain undefeated and put up 41 points in an overtime win against Missouri most recently. What does Grosel bring to the position?
BCI: Grosel stepped up big last week against Mizzou. For the most part, he stayed in his comfort zone and made the key plays he needed to to secure the win. However, he still has his limitations. He doesn’t have nearly the arm that Jurkovec has, and so there was quite the collective sigh when he went down. Grosel has started in each of the previous two seasons and so we know what he’s capable of, or not capable of. The deep ball is the biggest loss. As I mentioned earlier, the offense is designed to stretch the field and really air it out. You can’t really do that when maybe two out of three key deep passes in the last two games have been picked off. He just doesn’t have the strength, and is much better sticking with what he is good at. Grosel can be accurate in the short and mid-range plays, and can actually make more plays with his legs. Whereas Phil can stand up and take contact in the pocket, Grosel is much more willing to get on the move. BC is going to need to lean on that to help move the offense.
STS: Now looking at matchups for Saturday, when BC has the ball, who should we keep an eye on besides Grosel and Flowers? What types of things should we expect to see schematically from this BC offense?
BCI: The BC offense does have a number of good weapons and it could really be anyone’s day. I’ll start on the outside after Flowers. Jaelen Gill came back last week and is really dynamic with the ball in his hands. Look for him to catch the ball quickly and make a play. True freshman Jaden Williams has already made quite the name for himself, with the team looking for him in the end zone. Kobay White and CJ Lewis are two sure-fire receivers who are the perfect complement to Grosel’s range. Trae Barry is the new face on the offense. He’s a big tight end who causes some match-up problems all around, and leads all tight ends in the country in yards per reception.
Schematically, I think they’re going to want to control the ball. The past two games, they relied on the run, and the offensive line has really come together. The line is the same group as last year and projected to be the team’s strength, and it is coming together swimmingly. Pat Garwo has had two great games on the ground, but Alec Sinkfield and Travis Levy will bring the change-up. Quick, short passes, similar to NC State, and then a strong running game are what to expect. Flowers and Gill — get them the ball and let them make plays.
STS: On the other side of the ball, when
the worst offense I’ve ever seen Clemson has the ball, who are some players to watch on the Eagles’ defense? And how do you think this unit can continue to give the Tigers’ offense trouble, as have all of the Tigers’ FBS opponents to this point?
BCI: This one’s still going to be a challenge. I think the big trouble will be with what DJ can do when he takes off. Isaiah Graham-Mobley has been a force at middle linebacker. He hits hard and plays sideline to sideline. I’m sure he’ll be responsible for covering a lot of ground. Brandon Sebastian and Josh DeBerry are going to be key on the outside. They both came away with interceptions against Missouri. Shitta Sillah has been the best player on the defensive front. The junior defensive end is third on the team with 16 total tackles and is playing his best ball. Jaiden Woodbey at safety was a high-school teammate of DJ’s, and this will be the first time they play each other. It’s been a while of course, but the FSU transfer will look to have his first big impact day for the Eagles.
As skeptical as you may be, I think it’s going to be hard to continue to give the Tigers’ offense trouble. BC let Missouri dink and dunk their way down the field with ease last week. That’s not to say Hafley may want to change up coverage and press if the Tigers have been struggling to separate. I think the game plan will be to try and force him to make tight throws and keep him contained in the pocket.
STS: OK, prediction time. The Eagles gave a much better version of the Tigers all they could handle in Death Valley last season. Thanks to the weirdness of the pandemic season last year, Death Valley will be the site of this contest once again. This time, Clemson is struggling mightily and coming off a rare, vomit-inducing loss to NC State. Somehow, though, Clemson is still a 16-point favorite as of this writing, which seems a little ridiculous. Do you think BC can add to Clemson’s misery? What’s your final score prediction?
BCI: I’ve gone back and forth quite a bit on this one. Given what we’ve seen out of both teams so far, I’d have to agree that it’s a tad too high of a line. That being said, I want no action on this game, particularly because of how much Clemson has been dunked on across all forms of media this week. I do wonder how big of an impact all of these injuries will have on the Tigers, but I’m still not going to take the Eagles in Death Valley. Clemson 27 - BC 17
A big thank-you to Niraj for joining us for this Q&A once again. To see my answers to his questions, head over to BC Interruption.
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