Game Preview: Virginia at #18 Boston College
Oct 06, 2005After watching Maryland's young offensive line shove the Virginia defense around like a blocking sled on Tropical Blend last Saturday, UVa's biggest advantage this week might be an overconfident Boston College squad. But contrary to what apparently some folks up north think, the Eagles are not superheros and there are ways to exploit their top-10 defense. The big question is can the 'Hoos slow the BC rushing attack?
Virginia Offense vs. Boston College Defense
If you like gimmicks and trickeration in your college football defenses, then Frank Spaziani's BC 4-3 is not your cup of tea (get it, tea-Boston). Spaziani runs a fairly straightforward 4-3 flex scheme without a lot of stunting or man coverage. The Eagles rely on an aggressive four-man pass rush anchored by two athletic, speedy defensive ends. The secondary runs a fairly basic cover 2 zone.
The key to the BC coverage scheme is the defensive front. The idea is to attack the pocket and limit the time opponents have to go deep. Invariably, most offenses try to attack the Eagles behind the defensive line and up the seam. Teams tend to try and work the underneath routes with crossing patterns, drags and dump passes to the backs. The dump route, typically used in lieu of a running play, forces the secondary to essentially perform run support duties, dictating the zone alignment.
Because man coverage often requires the defensive backs to play with their backs to the football, zones tend to be less risky in this scheme.
The Eagles saw plenty of short passes against Clemson and Ball State, and with capable backs and tight ends that work the underneath well, expect more of the same from Virginia this weekend. But the 'Hoos have two wrinkles that the Eagles have limited experience with this season: a mobile quarterback and a vertical passing game. The Eagles have faced four consecutive opponents featuring traditional dropback passers and only Florida State offered an aggressive passing attack.
As noted, the Eagles run a pretty straightforward defense. They don't stunt a lot with the front four. They line up and say, “Bring it on and beat me.” BC doesn't disguise much or change coverages based on pre-snap reads. Spaziani's group doesn't bite on reverses and play-action.
The key to the Eagles defense is pressure. The BC pressure was so significant on Charlie Whitehurst that the normally aggressive Clemson offense went deep just once against the Eagles. The primary source of that pressure comes from All-American defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. Al Groh calls him tall and rangy and says “he runs way beyond the norm for his position.” Kiwanuka usually lines up on the left side of the defense but BC will move him around and expect to see the Eagles test Virginia's wounded tackles, even if D'Brickashaw Ferguson plays.
Perhaps no player in recent BC football history has received more accolades and respect than Kiwanuka, who leads the Eagles with 3.5 sacks. Kiwanuka was named the preseason ACC Player of the Year before he ever played a down in the conference.
The Eagle ends typically utilize a seven-technique, meaning they attempt to re-route the tight end with a jam and then attempt to defend the perimeter. The interior of the defensive line is expected to occupy blockers in order to allow the linebackers to make plays.
Boston College features two of the ACC's best at the position in Butkus Award candidates Ray Henderson and Brian Toal. A second-team All-Big East selection last season, Henderson leads the team in tackles and Toal is second. Toal garnered freshman All-America honors as well as the Big East's Rookie of Year award after finishing second on the team in tackles last season. Ricky Brown is a solid run stopper but is suspect in pass coverage, especially against the tight end.
Virginia surely will attempt to run the football, especially with Ferguson and Brian Barthelmes expected back in the lineup. But I anticipate the 'Hoos will test and expose the Eagle secondary just as they did against the Terps. No one in the BC secondary is over 6-feet tall and corners DeJuan Tribble and Jazzmen Williams are 5-9 and 5-8, respectively. That gives Fontel Mines and Deyon Williams a minimum six-inch advantage. FSU's 6-6 wideout Greg Carr caught two touchdown passes on fade routes, leaving BC's defenders an insignificant part of the play.
But Marques Hagans needs to be aware of Jazzmen Williams, who is a ball-hawking corner with tremendous instincts.
Also look for Virginia to attack the linebackers in the middle of the Boston College defense and the 6-foot safeties up the seam with 6-5 Tom Santi, 6-3 Jonathan Stupar and 6-5 John Phillips. FSU's tight ends abused the Boston College pass defense. The linebackers are average coverage defenders and the Eagles are weak over the middle, especially with strong safety Ryan Glasper still questionable for Saturday's game with a gimpy ankle. Tribble is also questionable with a groin injury.
Virginia may also come into the game with two separate gameplans. Spaziani likes to rotate the defensive front, and while attacking the perimeter with Kiwanuka and end Nick Larkin in the game may be futile, UVa's backs may find a little more running room on the outside with the second unit in the game.
But I believe this game must be won in the air and the Seminoles provided the blueprint. After struggling for a half against the Eagles, the 'Noles went to a four-wide set and put the Eagles on their heels. FSU exposed the vulnerability of BC's secondary to big, fast receivers and showed it has difficulty matching up with speedy backs man to man. The greatest success against the BC defense has come from the short passing game of BYU and the second-half intermediate passing game of FSU.
That to me is the key: attack with the pass to open up the run. Force BC's play-making linebackers to respect the dumps and crossing routes and delay their run approach for a split second. Virginia also will attack the Eagle secondary vertically and because of Hagans' mobility should be able to do what Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst could not - get off a deep pass.
Boston College Offense vs. Virginia Defense
To call the Eagles a methodical, no-frills, ball-control offense might sound boring, but that's what it is. BC coach Tom O'Brien basically says my “big 'uns” are better than your “big 'uns,” now let's have at it. The Eagles' longest run this season is 22 yards and their longest pass is 41 yards. BC averages 4.1 yards per carry and just under 25 first downs per game. What's it all mean? This is a grind-it-out, yard-by-yard, chain-moving running offense. They rely on the defense and try and control the clock.
“It's a dedicated, downhill running game,” Groh said. “It's unusual that balls go to the outside. You can see the backs are coached to keep the ball inside and get upfield. One of the things that's pretty eye-catching is that for the number of carries that their two tailbacks have had this year in five games, they've only had 13 yards of losses, which tells you that whether the ball is gaining any yards or not, it's getting right back up to the line of scrimmage in a hurry.”
A primary reason for the Eagles' success is an offensive line that averages 6-6 and 317 pounds. More important than its size is the fact that the starting five remains intact from last season and has a combined 89 starts.
The BC linemen are enormous and physical but what stands out is how athletic they are. They are technically sound, execute very well and possess a great deal of continuity. Playing a line like this is tougher because you have to go head up. Opposing linemen cannot shoot the gaps or scrape down because defenders must keep the interior linemen off the linebackers in order for them to make plays.
So, how do you attack a big, agile offensive lineman? Stay low. No matter how big or how tall, the low man always wins. Virginia's defensive linemen were consistently too high to gain any leverage against the Terp offensive front. The Virginia defenders must pick and maintain the right gap responsibility, stay focused on their run/pass keys and get the linemen off the blocks and keep the linebackers free from the big BC offensive line in order to make the plays.
Expect to see Virginia run its four-down linemen set from their 3-4 Flex with Kai Parham in the middle and Ahmad Brooks and Clint Sintim on the outside. Though it's not likely to happen, I'd be interested on occasion to see a defensive front of Keenan Carter and Ron Darden on the interior and Kwakou Robinson and Brennan Schmidt on the edge, with Chris Long in on passing downs. That line of bulk could force the double teams needed to free up Brooks, Parham and Sintim for ball-hawking and leave the dependable Nate Lyles and Tony Franklin to provide run support behind them.
BC will not show a lot of motion. They won't get cute and run out of passing sets 80% of the game or throw a lot of option at the 'Hoos, which should allow Virginia's young defense to get pretty early run/pass reads.
However it's done, the 'Hoos must sell out and stop the run. Forcing BC into a passing mode is essential to winning. In three of the Eagles' last four losses, opponents held them to under 2.9 yards per carry. Virginia must commit whatever personnel resources are required to stop the run and get the defense off the field. The Cavaliers can win a shootout, but they will find the smash-mouth, grind-it-out road difficult.
When the Eagles do pass, Virginia must get pressure on the quarterback. We saw last week how effective an above-average quarterback can be when he has time to throw. Maryland's Sam Hollenbach completed 75% of his passes against Virginia's woeful pass defense and feeble pass rush. How quickly Schmidt, Brooks, Sintim and the rest of the defensive front seven get to the quarterback could be a key factor in UVa's ability to slow a very efficient BC passing game. Matt Ryan and Quinton Porter have completed 70% of their attempts this season for 1,188 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions and the line has allowed just four sacks.
In my opinion, Al Golden must allow his corners and young safeties to play straight up and free up the linebackers to rush and stop the run. There's no other option. If they get beat, they get beat. But I'd rather them get beat because seven guys were in the BC quarterback's face than because the defense only sent four or five. I'll live with that.
If Porter starts, as my BC sources tell me he will, his mobility is a question mark. All the more reason to attack and smack. The 'Hoos must also do an effective job of disguising coverage and not giving away pre-snap hints. Everything in the Eagle scheme is timing patterns and the receivers and quarterback must be on the same page and read the same thing to get the ball and the receiver to the right spot at the right time. This also requires the defense to do a good job of jamming and re-routing the receivers and tight ends at the line of scrimmage. Operating out of the nickel and especially the base 3-4, Virginia frequently does a good job of mixing coverages and complicating issues for timing-based passing attacks.
That aspect could really provide Virginia an advantage.
See Absolutes and Desirables.
Who has The Edge?
Quarterbacks - Virginia
Running Backs - Even
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends - Virginia
Offensive Line - Boston College
Defensive Line - Boston College
Linebackers - Even
Secondary - Even
Special Teams -Virginia
Coaching - Even
Absolutes and DesirablesAbsolutes are things UVa must do in the game. Desirables are things we'd like to see from the Cavaliers.
1) Contain the BC running game - Plain and simple, the Cavaliers must sell out to stop the run. Last season the Eagles lost three games. In two of those losses to Pittsburgh and Syracuse, they were held to 1.7 yards per carry (Pitt) and 2.4 YPC (Syracuse). In their lone loss this season, the Eagles were held to 2.9 YPC (140 yards on 48 carries) by FSU. If the 'Hoos can contain the Eagle running game and limit it to under 3.2 yards per carry, I like their chances. Ah, it sounds so simple.
2) Virginia must force turnovers - Remember the 2002 Cavaliers? They won with everything: tight end passes, fake field goals and turnovers. Virginia must force turnovers and that won't be an easy task against a very disciplined Boston College team. But it's been proven that when you shut down their running game and force them into turnovers, the Eagles lose. All four BC losses over the last season and a half have come in games where the Eagles have given up the football on multiple occasions.
3) Win the special teams battle - The Eagles have an explosive returner in Will Blackmon, who brought back two kicks for touchdowns last season. Not only must Connor Hughes continue his virtually automatic placement and Chris Gould continue to punt well, the Wahoo coverage units must not let Blackmon get loose. Virginia has too little margin of error to give up a big special teams play.
So far this season, Virginia has averaged starting field position of the 39-yard line while holding opponents to starting drives at the 24. The 'Hoos are ninth in the nation in kickoff returns and 11th in punt return yards allowed. This must continue. BC kicker Ryan Ohliger is accurate but has limited range. Punter Johnny Ayers averages 40.9 yards but the team net is just 33.9.
With rain pending and considering the way BC likes to play, odds are good that this game will be close and low scoring, and that means there will be a premium on special teams. It's a cliché that is true in close ballgames, the outcome is often decided by the kicking game. If Virginia ever needed a score or to force a turnover on special teams this season, this is the week.
More importantly, Virginia will not be able to rely on just the offense or defense to win. It will take a total team effort and winning the special teams battle is do-able.
1) Avoid the BC “fast start” - Boston College has outscored opponents 88-31 in the first half this season. Over the course of the past four seasons, the Eagles are 27-3 when they lead after one quarter, 29-3 when they lead at halftime and 38-3 when they lead after three quarters. If the Eagles get the lead, they will hold onto the ball and eat up clock. If they are forced to play from behind, they must rely on their passing game, which isn't their strength. The 'Hoos need to jump out quickly and not allow BC to go into its running game shell. Make the Eagles run their total offense for four quarters. Better yet, get ahead of them early and make them pass.
2) Red-Zone Efficiency - In 12 trips inside the red zone this season, BC has allowed just five touchdowns. Virginia's struggles inside the 25 against Maryland last week have been well-documented as the 'Hoos had to settle for four field goals. The Eagles have been stout in the red zone, allowing just five touchdowns in 12 opponent trips and just eight scores overall. As part of this “total team effort” concept, the Cavaliers cannot afford to leave any points on the field in this contest.
3) Shelf the boring offensive play-calling - Many Virginia fans lament the seeming departure of the creative offenses of 2001 and 2002, but Saturday is not the day to bring that back. BC is a well-schooled defense that can make teams pay for misguided play-calling. The Eagle defense leads the ACC and is ranked second in the nation in rushing defense, allowing a stingy average of 53.0 yards per game on the ground. They are also fourth nationally in scoring defense (10.2 PPG), 38th in passing defense and fourth in overall defense.
But Boston College has some holes that can be exploited with creative play-calling. As we addressed, the cornerbacks are short, the Eagles aren't very deep and banged up in the secondary. Should Virginia go to a three- or four-receiver set and utilize its taller receivers, it might force BC to keep its safeties out of the box to provide deep help. That should open up the running game for Cedric Peerman, Michael Johnson and Wali Lundy. If the Eagles decide to leave their corners out on an island in man, it will be up to Ron Prince and the offensive staff to capitalize on this evident mismatch.
Greg: From some of the press clippings coming out of Boston College, the Eagles appear a tad bit overconfident. The Eagles average 167 yards rushing per game and after watching Maryland's young offensive line push around the Cavaliers, who could blame them? Still, the BC passing game is average, more a product of its great run attack than receivers or quarterbacks, and Porter's mobility is suspect.
Virginia should be able to move the football through the air to the tune of 40-45 passing attempts, if the weather cooperates. I also believe the coaching staff will be ready to deal with the running game and the Eagles will not attack the young Virginia defense with an offense remotely as complex as that of Friedgen and the Terps. This may be another shootout, but I doubt it. Rain might nullify any advantage BC has with a usually lethargic home crowd.
Will that be enough?
If the Cavs can force three turnovers and gain a clear advantage in the kicking game, they can go into Alumni Stadium and pull the upset. I'm not sure they will.
Boston College 24, Virginia 20
John: If the game comes down to which team controls the line of scrimmage, I don't like Virginia's chances. The Eagles are bigger and better than the Cavaliers on both lines, especially if Ferguson and Barthelmes aren't at full strength. In fact, BC might be the sturdiest, most physical team UVa will play this season. Fortunately, trench warfare hasn't necessarily decided anything since World War I. There are other ways to win a football game - speed, creativity, luck, resourcefulness, resolve. Remember, the 'Hoos won nine games in 2002 despite getting routinely abused up front.
Problem is, the 2005 Cavs haven't demonstrated enough of those traits to suggest they can compensate for a physical mismatch. They need to hold Boston College to field goals, make some big plays in the passing game and, above all, play with some passion on the road. For whatever reason, they haven't been particularly aggressive or intense in these kind of games, and there's no excuse for that.
BC is beatable. The Eagles don't have much team speed and they're not an explosive bunch, but they aren't going to beat themselves with penalties and dumb mistakes. Virginia will have to play much better than it has so far this season and show it won't settle for mediocrity. You can bet this game means a lot to Tom O'Brien and Frank Spaziani, even though they'd never admit it. Let's hope the Cavs show how much this game means to them, too.
Boston College 27, Virginia 17
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