Boston College Football Four Downs: Syracuse Game

Boston College Steve Addazio

Much of the pregame fear surrounding Boston College on Saturday centered around how the defense would play against the fast-paced Syracuse defense. It was coming off of a second record-setting performance by an opposing offense, and the up-and-down, roller-coaster season generated concern that quarterback Tommy Devito would get the Orange’s engine moving in the Carrier Dome.

It bubbled over the surface in the early first quarter when Devito commanded respect through success. He completed 6-of-7 passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns, largely keeping the secondary off-balance by spreading the ball to a handful of receivers.

On the team’s first drive, he set up a touchdown by executing a school-yard, option pass to Sean Riley, scrambling to the right and throwing a forward pass with less than an inch remaining before the line of scrimmage. Two BC turnovers didn’t help, and the Orange raced out to a 17-10 lead that gave the game a Big 12-type atmosphere. 

It wouldn’t last. BC adjusted in the second quarter, and the Syracuse game plan fell off a cliff. The offense only mustered 67 yards of offense over the entire second quarter, 63 of which came on its first drive, then watched the Eagles amass 294 yards before halftime. Thirty-four BC points went up on the scoreboard, effectively ending the game by halftime, 44-20, en route to a 58-27 thrashing in Central New York.

“I’m proud of the way our kids played,” head coach Steve Addazio said. “They played with toughness, passion and resolve. We knew we were coming to play in the (Carrier Dome), and I know as well as anybody that it’s a tough place to play. We were able to do some fabulous things on the field, and we had to overcome early adversity.”

BC’s accomplishments at Syracuse left a buzz long after the game ended, and it will likely continue to reverberate long into the future. The offense shattered the program’s record book, starting with a 691-yard performance that broke a 37-year old record set against Penn State in 1982.

The Eagles’ 44 points and 484 yards of offense in the first half were the most in a half in an ACC game since the team joined the league in 2005. It also marked the most first-half points by an ACC team this season and the third-most first-half yards by an FBS team.

The 58 points broke a 10-year old record set against NC State for most points in an ACC game by the Eagles, and it set a record for most points scored in the Syracuse rivalry. The previous record, set in 2017, came in a win at the Carrier Dome two years ago.

“Our team responded to a challenge,” Addazio said. “We came on the road against an explosive Syracuse team and did an unbelievable job. That’s the most points scored in a BC-Syracuse game, and that’s a good day. That’s something we can build on, and it’s something we can grow with here at BC. Every week is a new week.”

It was complete domination over the team’s chief rival, and it left BC with an exhausted-but-happy ride back to Chestnut Hill. Now readying for Florida State, it’s an opportunity to put the team on the verge of bowl eligibility.

Here’s some of what else can be learned from Saturday’s win:

First Down: Buffalo Soldier No. 1

Boston College fans will unquestionably feel sadness when AJ Dillon moves on from the Heights one day. He’s been a transcendent talent, and there’s an appreciation of how beautiful he looks every time he touches the football. It’s poetry set to a symphony orchestra because he combines the perfect amount of finesse with a raw, unbridled, hard-hitting smash-mouth style.

Saturday was the coronation to the record books that he didn’t receive in the Clemson game when he set the all-time rushing yardage mark. He rushed for 242 yards and three touchdowns, shattering the all-time scoring mark set by Keith Barnette. It was the ninth-best single-game total in BC program history and the fourth 200-yard game of his career. 

The record-breaking touchdown came in the second quarter when he burst through a wide-open lane in the line for a 51-yard, untouched score.

“The offensive line came together tremendously,” Dillon said. “They open up so many holes and opportunities. My job is to go find them. There were tough yards, but when those opportunities open, you have to take them. I just have to make sure that I get in there, and I got to showcase my speed a bit.”

Dillon entered the game needing just under 300 yards to become the first BC running back with 4,000 yards. That now seems like a foregone conclusion after he pushed his career total to 3,983 yards, ninth-best in ACC history.

“AJ is having his best year,” Addazio added. “His leadership and mindset is completely different. He’s a third-year player with some adversity that he had to overcome last year, but he’s a grown-up guy now. He’s had a positive impact on that whole room. That’s a really good room (of running backs), and AJ has done a good job of setting that, moving forward.”

Second Down: Buffalo Soldier No. 2

A good horror movie usually begins with the antagonist living in the shadows. A couple of quick moves usually draw some light attention, but everyone largely ignores it until a large-scale conflict pulls back the curtain. At that point, it’s a full-fledged battle, one where the main character leaves a trail of fear in its wake.

The double-tipped approach of the Boston College running game largely ran in shadows in the early part of the season, but by this point, it’s struck enough fear to put the Buffalo Boys ahead of Pennywise or The Shining or anything else that comes out of a Steven King novel. After Dillon ran for just under 250 yards, David Bailey broke off another 172 yards and two touchdowns.

“We feel very confident in the running game,” Addazio said. “We have an outstanding offensive line and two backs that are really active and playing right now. There’s a group of tight ends. Even a week ago, we felt like we could run the football with the two horses that we have and that really good offensive line. We wanted to establish that part of our game (against Syracuse), without question.”

Bailey sprinted for a 74-yard touchdown late in the second quarter after he scored a 29-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, completely demoralizing the Syracuse defense.

“When you can do what we did in the way that we did it, it’s overwhelming for a defense,” Addazio continued. “We move at a pretty good clip, and your secondary and safeties are taking a beating by tackling two 250-pound backs. When you stay on the field, they abandon their coverage, then you hit them with play actions. If we can stay on the field with multiple first downs, we can impose our will on defenses.”

Halftime Hits

-I watched the game from the comfort of my couch yesterday, so I decided to put some hamburgers on the grill at halftime. I don’t know when I forgot about this, but grilling in colder weather is an absolute delight. The smell of meat cooking wafted off the grill, through the chilly autumn air and made for an absolutely wonderful afternoon. I’m sure the scoreboard didn’t hurt, but I thoroughly loved every second of it.

-Yes, I grilled the buns, too. But the trick is putting a little bit of butter on the underside that goes against the grates. 

-One drawback to grilling, though: I still haven’t raked leaves. The storms of the last week picked the trees in my yard completely clean, and I’m about ankle-deep in a certified color wheel of wet, nasty leaves. On Halloween, I made an attempt to rake them at least into the yard, but it failed miserably. My wife keeps yelling at me to go outside and take care of them, but I’d rather write about BC football, to be honest.

-I love seasons in New England, but this is probably the only time of year that I don’t like. I would rather shovel snow for seven straight days than have to go in my yard.

-It’s going to snow this week apparently. I hope the people from Florida don’t mind. It’s coming on Friday, though, so it should be good and cold for Saturday’s game.

Third Down: Dennis Grosel

Dennis Grosel’s first start against NC State was a made-for-television movie. The former seventh-string quarterback went from walk-on to starter in just over two years, and though he didn’t need to do much in that game, he became an instant rock star. Then came the Clemson game where the entire team struggled against an elite, national championship contender playing with an angry edge, but Grosel quickly faded to the background in the wake of the loss.

He’s now next to Matt Ryan in the BC record book. Grosel became the first quarterback since Ryan to throw two touchdown passes of more than 50 yards in the same game. He hit Kobay White at the start of the second quarter for a 64-yard score, then hit Zay Flowers on the very next BC scoring drive for a 50-yard strike. 

“The (touchdowns) are two separate types of plays,” Grosel said. “With the run game working, (Syracuse) was loading the box. We ran a few more times to open up play-action and we ran the play where the run hit (the line) hard. (Kobay and Zay) were both open. That’s a testament to the run game that forced Syracuse to load up the box.”

He finished with 195 yards on 8-of-10 passing with three touchdowns. On a day where the offense didn’t need him to do more than that, he excelled, hitting designed pass plays to receivers and stepping into another level after exclusively targeting tight ends in his first starting snaps.

“We felt like we needed balance in our attack,” Addazio said. “It got skewed, but Dennis Grosel threw the ball very well. He threw it in drop-back and play-action. A couple of those play-action passes allowed him to go for big touchdowns.”

It’s all part of a maturation process for Grosel, who will face a stingy test in BC’s final home game next week against Florida State.

Fourth Down: The No Fly Zone Defense

Boston College’s beleaguered defense took some justified criticism this year. The unit graduated almost its entire secondary, and the losses along the defensive line created a situation where players stepped into a starting role with limited experience, regardless of class. The reboot mixed some good with some bad, and it created an extreme roller coaster. A dominant performance against NC State, for example, came sandwiched between two record-setting performances by opponents against Louisville and Clemson.

On Saturday, though, the team stepped up. Tommy Devito threw for almost 300 yards, but the only real game-threatening touchdowns came on short fields after the offense had two turnovers. And though the Orange finished just shy of 500 yards of offense, the second and third quarters resulted in less than half of that, including the complete domination before halftime.

“We’re trying to develop on defense,” Addazio stated. “We’re playing a bunch of guys that are on a roller coaster a little bit. There’s some progress but then it looks like we step back. That’s all part of developing a group of players without a bunch of experience.”

The team showed significant improvement in the secondary even despite a loss to Mike Palmer. Palmer pulled up on a deep throw attempt by Devito in the first quarter and was helped off the field, forcing Nolan Borgersen into extended action. Borgersen wound up getting beat on a 26-yard touchdown pass to Trishton Jackson, but he rallied to make significant tackles, including one on a screen pass where he ball-hawked to the play and forced a two-yard loss.

Palmer’s injury, by the way, wasn’t the only medical report for the Eagles. Mehdi El-Attrach went down in the game’s second half, joining a list of injuries for the Eagles that forced defensive end Joey Luchetti to the opposite side of the ball at tight end. 

“We have to go back and take a look to get a sense of where we are,” Addazio said. “We have to go from there. You roll with the hand you’re dealt and keep moving forward. This time of year, you have to have good fortune. Sometimes that rolls with you, sometimes it doesn’t. But next week’s game is rolling like a freight train, so we have to figure it out.”

The Clemson game made the NC State game a recent aberration in a string that was, at the time, three bad games out of four. Now, the Clemson game is the outlier after the defense put together two solid games in its last three. It changes the tenor of the team moving forward, though it will need a third solid game against Florida State to solidify its late-season reputation.

“There’s learning moments everywhere,” Addazio said. “Late in the fourth quarter, there’s still learning moments out there. We’re investing in a great group of young men who will give us a good return. This is the ride we’re on. There have been good moments, and there will continue to be good moments.”

Point After: Florida State

Florida State will always command attention because its recruiting classes have some of the best raw athletes in college football, but the Seminoles simply continue to struggle under head coach Willie Taggart. They lost to Miami yesterday, 27-10, after falling behind, 17-3, in the first half.

The Seminoles’ struggles are part of why the ACC is becoming so wide open this year. The FSU offense was off against the Hurricanes throughout the entire game, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook only threw for 135 yards and one touchdown. In the run game, Miami held Cam Akers to 66 yards and a three yards-per-carry average.

The Hurricane offense, meanwhile, torched the FSU secondary. Jarren Williams went 21-of-37 for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and DeeJay Dallas scored another on the ground on 61 yards rushing. Combined with BC’s win, it dropped the Seminoles into fifth in the ACC Atlantic Division, a half-game behind the Eagles, who in turn are a half-game behind idle Louisville.

It makes for an incredibly intriguing race for bowl eligibility. Everything will start to come into focus later this week, but Saturday’s game carries critical value for both teams with extreme outcomes. A win for both teams vaults each into the Tier I bowl picture, while a loss pulls eligibility into an overall question.

Game time is already slated for noon at Alumni Stadium for BC’s Red Bandanna Game honoring the memory of Welles Crowther. Crowther infamously perished on 9/11 in the World Trade Center but is remembered as a hero for the dozen people he saved before the towers collapsed.

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