Boston College Football Four Downs: Virginia Tech Game

Boston College Football Four Downs: Virginia Tech Game

A different buzz enveloped Boston College into Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech. The Eagles were 3-1, but a sliver advantage in winning percentage and common opponent matchups against Duke and North Carolina dared them to dream of their first victory over a consensus ranked opponent in six years. It drew a clear dividing line between the metrics favoring the Hokies and the emotion-based analysis driving people to the lovable underdogs from Chestnut Hill.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, the poetic justice didn’t win out on Saturday night at Lane Stadium. The offense committed five turnovers, and the defense, after early success, spiraled in the second half as the No. 23 Hokies held serve with a 40-14 victory.

“We turned the ball over five times,” head coach Jeff Hafley said, “and they scored 20 points off of turnovers. That’s on me and the coaches and the players, and we have to fix it. If you turn the ball over five times, sometimes deep in the territory, with the momentum we had. We were running the ball better than we had, and we looked unstoppable on offense. It was just self-inflicted.”

The loss stings because of the lost potential it carried at kickoff. BC entered the game with national aspirations and a recent track record against the Hokies. Stingy defense denied any overwhelming scores out of early turnovers, and a fluid offense matched its opponent yard-for-yard. The dormant running game reemerged, and the passing game spread the ball evenly to receivers. 

In the first half alone, Phil Jurkovec threw for 146 yards and a touchdown, and Zay Flowers produced another highlight-reel play. Jaelen Gill scored his first touchdown for Boston College, and both Jehlani Galloway and CJ Lewis produced explosive plays. David Bailey rumbled for 40 yards through gaping holes in the defensive line, and Travis Levy executed a dual purpose of catching and blocking in the passing game.

“Through the course of the game, we rotated guys in there,” Jurkovec said. “I was proud of how many guys got in there that hadn’t been playing that much and (how many) that stepped up.”

The turnovers just handed things away at inopportune moments. BC nearly pulled even with the Hokies in the third quarter, but a fourth turnover after a Tech touchdown was a ten-point swing that got the team out of whack with a two-touchdown deficit. 

Handing a good Virginia Tech team extra opportunities is never good, but BC proved it could move the ball against a tough defense. The running game emerged early, and the Hokies didn’t directly turn the turnovers into four touchdowns. The Eagles proved they could push an upper-tier ACC team, but they still have to learn how to beat those teams under Jeff Hafley.

In the end, the win should do nothing to diminish the buzz, but it will reset the levels heading into next week’s game against Georgia Tech.

Here are the rest of the takeaways from Saturday at Lane Stadium:

*****
First Down: Boston College Offense

Football coaches like to sync their offense and defense into a certain amount of harmony. Defenses quickly end drives on third down in order to get offenses back on the field, and opposing defenses stay tired because offenses engineer long scoring drives. The lack of possession time then forces opposing offenses to rush the football, and the cycle spirals a team into a losing effort.

The direct correlation between the scoreboard and a team’s ability to balance played out over the full four quarters on Saturday night. In the first, BC balanced its offense for 125 yards and two third-down conversions against a defense that got off the field on two third downs. Virginia Tech moved the ball, but the Eagles held their own in situational football.

The turnovers pushed that out of sync in the second quarter because the offense started forcing plays more unnaturally. The passing offense added 62 yards but went 6-for-11 with an interception, and the Virginia Tech defense started stuffing the line of scrimmage. It flipped enough of the field to enable the Hokies to slip a few big plays into the offense and avoid the third-down defense.

“We turned the ball over three times in the first four possessions, and we were only down 10 points,” Hafley said. “It’s a huge momentum shift. We played more defensive plays against a good offense. A key to the game was time of possession and moving the ball forward to not give them the ball. We failed to do that.”

The 10-point swing in the third quarter really broke that open, and Virginia Tech started hitting more of those plays. BC went 4-for-5 on third down but had all but abandoned the run in order to chip away at the lead, and the exacerbation spilled into the fourth. What was a tight game early ultimately fell apart on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter when the Hokies scored two touchdowns with the game out of reach.

“Interceptions are what they are,” Hafley said. “I want Phil to let it go, and when you throw the ball, it’s going to happen. The fumbles aren’t. There was one where Hunter was late with the motion and kind of bumped into Phil, but we can’t lose the ball. Our backs have to do a better job of holding it, but we have to do a better job of coaching.”

Losing sync and synergy is a hurtful blow because BC recovered its mojo in each of its first four games, but it’s an important learning tool for the future. The Eagles came back against Texas State and needed to learn how to put the emotion away for the next week. They nearly completed a comeback against North Carolina and needed to do the same. Last week, they won in overtime over Pittsburgh and needed to do it a third time. Now they have to bounce back from a tough loss and do it once more.

“I can’t wait to get back and practice and get it right,” Hafley said. “I’m even more confident now. It shows me the type of group that we have, and I can’t wait to play again…Guys have to get their rest. I’m not going to treat the staff differently, win or lose, and I’m not going to treat the players differently, win or lose. I’m going to coach hard if we win, and I’m going to coach hard if we lose. It’s about the process.”


*****
Second Down: Virginia Tech Offense

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente is an innovator known for tailoring his offense around the personnel available. At TCU, he built his spread around Andy Dalton’s arm, and he tailored it at Memphis around Paxton Lynch’s massive body. On Saturday, Fuente introduced BC to his run-based spread built around Hendon Hooker.

It was a completely different style than the spread passing game the Hokies employed in last year’s BC game. It incorporated speed options and RPO-designed runs built around Hooker’s legs, and it blitzed the center of the defense. It caught blitz packages off guard and gained an average of seven yards per carry in every quarter while retaining the threat of a pass.

“We knew they ran the ball for 300 yards per game,” Hafley said. “They ran the ball for 300 yards again tonight. We had missed tackles and some foolish penalties. We need to coach better and play better. We will make sure we do that.”

Having both a mobile quarterback and an elite running back ensured Virginia Tech’s breakthrough against BC. Hooker gained over nine yards per carry and scored three times, but Khalil Herbert sprinted for 146 yards and just under eight yards per carry. That made defending an option nearly impossible without over-committing to the line of scrimmage, and BC lost outside containment when it tried to keep the Hokies in the backfield.

By the time BC threw its resources to stop the outside containment, Herbert caught a touchdown pass out of the backfield. Tayvion Robinson likewise caught two balls for 29 yards, and both James Mitchell and Kaleb Smith found their way into the receiving column with short, staccato receptions.

*****
HAF-time Hits

-I know I’m getting softer in my old age, but congratulations to UMass for stepping on the field for its game against Georgia Southern on Saturday. The Minutemen reversed their decision to postpone the fall season, but without the backstop of a conference, they didn’t have any games to play until the seas parted for a game against the Eagles. Prior to that game, BC was the only New England school playing college football, but any safe return for any team, under the protocols enforced, is worth a celebratory congratulations. I found myself openly rooting for UMass, too, for the first time since Marcel Shipp ran all over Georgia Southern in the Division I-AA Championship. It felt good to say it: we’re all in this together, Massachusetts.

-I have a love-hate relationship with 8 p.m. kickoffs. They give me the freedom to fully enjoy my day, but I’m having a tougher time staying awake as the games run late into the night. The early morning wake-up in order to watch the Premier League fully enabled me to live out a full day, and I took advantage of the weather breaking into sunshine in the morning. Instead of curling up to play video games and fall asleep after dinner, though, I stayed up deep into the night. My eyes started stinging around halftime, which I don’t mind because adrenaline can take me home, but it’s a good thing I can function on little to no sleep.

-Speaking of the Premier League, I took back everything I ever said about VAR when it negated Jordan Henderson’s winning goal for Liverpool in the Merseyside Derby. I grew into really loving European soccer about 10 years ago, and one of my first Premier League experiences came with watching Landon Donovan and Tim Howard play for Everton. I claimed the club as my own, not knowing the levels of heartbreak I would endure over the next 10 years. Last year, I found myself falling in love with Sheffield United because I visited Sheffield a dozen or so years ago and equally adored the city. This season, though, gave me Everton at the top of the table in the early goings, and this was going to be an electric Merseyside Derby – the name for the intracity rivalry between Everton and Liverpool.

Long story short, in stoppage time in the second half, Henderson scored to give Liverpool a 3-2 lead. The equivalent of a walk-off winner, it fell under review by the Video Assistant Referee, and a dubious offside (it was a horrible call) negated the goal. I have no idea why it was offsides, but I don’t really think I’m going to complain. With a 2-2 final, Everton still leads the table, which is something I can savor for another week (and if you’re not a soccer fan, none of this might make any sense to you, but trust me, it’s a very big deal).

-I made more references to ghouls, goblins, and October this year than I ever have. That’s incredibly ironic because I don’t like dressing up for Halloween. That said, bring on the candy.

-Saturday legitimately had perfect weather up here – clear skies, full foliage, breezy chill. Best time of the year anywhere, and I stick by it.

-Happy 50th birthday, Jay McGillis. 

*****
Third Down: Hendon Hooker

One last thing about Hooker because he really intrigues me as a quarterback. I used to think his style of play was best-suited for college only and that a really athletic runner who didn’t throw the ball all that often would never find a permanent home under center. I remember Antwaan Randle El rushing for more than 1,200 yards at Indiana, but he never projected to the NFL as a quarterback. Julian Edelman likewise rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a quarterback in 2008, but the NFL never even considered him for anything other than a wide receiver. Even Denard Robinson went to the NFL as a running back after playing quarterback at Michigan.

Hooker feels different than all of them because he’s a six-foot, four-inch monster with elite speed and a cannon arm. He is the perfect quarterback for the new spread brand, and his slick speed and agility makes it brutally difficult for defenses to bring him down.

“If you look at the first third down, when we blitzed, I thought we had him sacked three or four times,” Jeff Hafley said. “I’ll look hard at the film, and we struggled to get off the block and we didn’t finish our tackles. I don’t know if we were tackling too high, but we’ll fix it.”

NFL quarterbacks are increasingly mobile and are more commonplace than the outliers that Randall Cunningham and Steve Young provided in the 1980s and 1990s. Every division has at least one quarterback that has exceptional speed and an offense built around it.

I don’t know what that means for Hendon Hooker, but I know I’m intrigued and excited by his prospects. If he continues to develop, he could be the next quarterback to merge his skills into the new, emerging style.

*****
Fourth Down: MathMan Dan

I threw full trust into analytics last week because Boston College and Virginia Tech looked too much alike on paper. Both teams had potent offenses and stingy defenses, but I wanted to see if numbers stood up against each other when analyzed through granular microscopes. I eventually came to the conclusion that there was a very direct route to beating the Hokies, and it relied mostly on the Eagles’ ability to execute.

“It’s a good team,” Jeff Hafley said. “They have a bunch of depth, and they have a really good O-line. I thought we had a really good plan, but I’ll be curious to see the tape.”

I’ll be equally curious this week to see how this loss impacts those analytics because I don’t think the numbers should hurt BC all that much. If anything, I think the numbers will support that the Eagles played well because one bad score might hide positives that eventually wash out over a whole process, provided the season continues on its original trajectory.

“Win or lose, I stress the process,” Hafley said. “When we turn on the tape, we’re going to see some things we did really well. Unfortunately in football, if you make big mistakes like we did, you can’t win. We’ll watch the tape closely and get better.”

*****
Point After: The ACC

My least favorite part of college football preseason is the part where I am asked my opinion for a record prediction. Every season feels more week-to-week than the last one, and I don’t think it’s fair to offer thoughts for a November game when we don’t know the variable conditions surrounding the game. There’s no way, in my mind, to predict what will happen next week until we work through what happens this week, and it’s why I am increasingly unwilling to throw record predictions at any team, except for maybe my annual thought, “The Red Sox are going undefeated this year.”

This weekend gave me every reason why I think that way. Syracuse lost quarterback Tommy DeVito against Duke and switched to Rex Culpepper this week against Liberty. Culpepper threw for three touchdowns, but the Flames won 38-21. I don’t know if DeVito wins that game because the Orange couldn’t exactly stop the run (plus Liberty was and is still undefeated), but I also wouldn’t have called it a loss at the start of the season. The waters got murkier, though, when Syracuse lost to Duke.

No. 6 Notre Dame, meanwhile, struggled with Louisville in the first half and never really recovered, even though it ultimately survived, 12-7. Florida State rocked North Carolina early with a 24-0 lead and held on for dear life to score a 31-28 upset win over the No. 5 team in the nation. Duke and NC State played down to the wire. So did Virginia and Wake Forest.

Even BC was a popular pick to struggle this year because a new coaching staff lacked both a spring practice and a normal training camp, but the Eagles resembled nothing of the ground-and-pound, crack-the-rock team everyone expected. 

My point is that everything is still wide open, and nothing is certain. We can’t predict what will happen in late November without first seeing what happens in early November, and we don’t know what we don’t know until teams continue playing games through the end of this month. Anything and everything can change on a dime, which I learned by watching the ACC.

Actually, that’s a lie. Clemson is still the undisputed best team in the league, and I’m not sure how close the argument is right now. Trevor Lawrence threw for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Maybe he read the news clipping where I said Sam Howell might be just as good, if not better, than him, or he heard everyone talking about Phil Jurkovec as the ACC’s leading passer. I’m pretty sure a punter played quarterback at the end of that game, during which Clemson posted close to 700 yards of offense.

The Yellow Jackets will look to rebound next week when they host BC. That game will kick off at 4 p.m. and can be seen on the ACC Network. For a list of cable providers with access to the channel, visit GetACCN.com.

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