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Steve Addazio’s Boston College desperately needs an offense

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Becoming good might take a while. Can the Eagles become watchable?

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Boston College vs Maryland Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Aesthetics matter. Without them, you could make a case that Addazio is one of the country’s more underrated coaches.

Addazio inherited a crumbling Boston College — the Eagles’ win total had fallen for five consecutive years when he arrived, a really difficult accomplishment — and has taken his team to three bowls in four years. After a one-year setback, his 2016 charges more than doubled their win total and earned the program’s first bowl win since 2007.

BC’s attendance, however, lays out like a program in decline.

  • Home attendance, 2007-08 (record: 20-8 | coach: Jeff Jagodzinski): 41,513
  • Home attendance, 2009-10 (record: 15-11 | Frank Spaziani): 37,042
  • Home attendance, 2011-12 (record: 6-18 | Spaziani): 36,364
  • Home attendance, 2013-14 (record: 14-12 | Addazio): 33,638
  • Home attendance, 2015-16 (record: 10-15 | Addazio): 31,181

The slide has not abated, even though the rate of losses has turned around somewhat.

We know attendance is on the decline throughout college football, and that can explain part of what has basically been a 25 percent drop for BC. But aesthetics help.

Ten years ago, BC reached No. 2 in the country. Senior Matt Ryan threw 47 times per game, and six different players caught at least 30 balls. The Eagles upset Viginia Tech and Clemson on the road to secure the ACC Atlantic title, then beat Michigan State in the Champs Sports bowl to finish 11-3 and 10th in the AP poll.

Ryan finished 2007 with 4,507 passing yards and seventh in Heisman voting. Over the last three seasons, BC quarterbacks have combined to throw for 4,807 yards. That’s 300 more yards ... in 24 more games.

Now, that’s fine if you’re operating out of a dynamic rushing attack. But in 2007, BC running backs rushed 327 times for 1,430 yards; in 2016, BC backs rushed 388 times for 1,427 yards.

Let me commend BC for having what was, according to Off. S&P+, the fifth-worst offense in FBS, but still reaching a bowl. That’s really tricky to pull off. The Eagles beat four awful teams (UMass, Wagner, Buffalo, UConn) and upset NC State and Wake Forest to eke out a bid, then turned great field position and a fumble return touchdown into a 36-30 win over Maryland.

Basically, they had a chance in eight of 13 games and won seven of those eight. And good for them. But on paper, they were worse than the 3-9 squad of 2015. Their defense was still strong after losing coordinator Don Brown to Michigan, but it slipped from second in Def. S&P+ to 21st; meanwhile, an offense that had bottomed out in 2015 (125th in Off. S&P+) barely improved. This was a run-first, run-second team that couldn’t run.

Wins only matter so much if you’re hurting your fans’ eyeballs. Because BC still had an efficient defense, Eagles games featured a non-stop barrage of three-and-outs. At least, as long as they weren’t playing somebody good. In four games against S&P+ top-20 teams, BC got outscored, 202-24.

Outside of quarterback, the Eagles’ experience level is relatively high. They return their top two rushers, top five receiving targets, four offensive line starters (plus graduate transfer Marcell Lazard, a part-time starter at WVU), four of six on the defensive line (including Harold Landry, maybe the best end in the country), three of four at linebacker, and five of six at defensive back. The defense will be strong. The offense will run and punt a lot. Supposedly offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler wants to experiment with tempo, which is a fine idea ... if you’re moving the chains.

The major difference this fall is that the schedule gets more difficult. In 2016, BC feasted on four opponents that were either FCS or ranked in the 120s; in 2017, only three project worse than 70th.

S&P+ gives the Eagles a greater than 32 percent chance in only five games this year. To reach another bowl, they’ll have to win every semi-winnable game and at least one big upset.

I enjoy being wrong, and I enjoy out-of-nowhere rebounds. But it appears the odds are stacked against Addazio this season.


2016 in review

2016 BC statistical profile.

BC opponents fell into three pools, with distant space between each. You’re expected to fare better against bad foes than good ones, but the difference for the Eagles was drastic.

  • BC vs. S&P+ top 25 (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 19% (~top 105) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.7, BC 3.5 | Avg. score: Opp 43, BC 9
  • BC vs. No. 45-87 (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 38% (~top 80) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.3, BC 4.9 | Avg. score: Opp 22, BC 22
  • BC vs. No. 117+ (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 78% (~top 30) | Avg. yards per play: BC 5.0, Opp 2.1 | Avg. score: BC 33, Opp 5

You’ll rarely see splits this large. Top-25 opponents averaged 451 yards per game against the Eagles, and the four opponents at the bottom gained 417 yards, total. The offense was far below average against bad opponents, but scored more than enough.

If BC could physically dominate you, you had no chance. But there was no Plan B.


Offense

BC offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

BC’s offense has been so awful that it’s almost jarring to remember the Eagles had a Heisman finalist not even four years ago. In 2013, Andre Williams powered an attack that ranked 30th in Off. S&P+; in 2014, without Williams, the combination of quarterback Tyler Murphy and freshman grinder Jon Hilliman kept the Eagles at 50th.

In 2015, BC fell straight to the bottom. Three different freshman quarterbacks struggled, Hilliman got hurt, nobody caught more than 17 passes, and the Eagles crashed.

Sensing a problem, Addazio brought in Loeffler, which makes you wonder if he understood the problem.

Loeffler’s reputation as an OC is unfair. HIs biggest problem seems to be that he can’t say no to impossible jobs. In the last six seasons, he has been brought in for turnaround/salvage jobs at Temple (2011, with Addazio), Auburn (2012), Virginia Tech (2013), and BC (2016).

  • Average Off. S&P+ ranking for those schools in the pre-Loeffler year: 86.0
  • Average Off. S&P+ ranking in Loeffler’s first season: 88.0

Virginia Tech and BC basically remained the same with Loeffler in charge, Temple improved a bit, and Auburn plummeted. His next top-50 offense will be his first. And if he pulls off a top-50 ranking this fall, triple his salary.

BC offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Loeffler will at least have a more experienced set of personnel.

  • Hilliman is back and might be healthy for the first time since basically 2014. And after averaging a ghastly 2.95 yards per carry last year, his numbers have nowhere to go but up. And big, well-touted freshman AJ Dillon could challenge for carries.
  • Leading receiver (and former quarterback) Jeff Smith is in his second year as a wideout and was already BC’s most dangerous weapon. Speedy junior Michael Walker and big senior Charlie Callinan combined for 58 catches last year as well, and redshirt freshmen Christian McStravick and Kobay White and sophomores Chris Garrison and Nolan Borgersen give Eagles depth they haven’t had.
  • Tight end Tommy Sweeney averaged 13.6 yards per catch and easily had the best success rate of the primary receiving weapons.
  • Including Lazard, the line has six players who have combined for 87 career starts.
NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Boston College vs Maryland
Jon Hilliman
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Experience can be a major weapon if players are developing, and there are at least a couple of exciting skill guys.

Great, so what about that quarterback position? In the last two seasons, five different players have thrown at least 49 passes, but of the five, Patrick Towles (graduated), Smith (changed positions), and Troy Flutie (changed positions) are no longer on the QB depth chart, and junior John Fadule (walk-on who played in 2015 because there was no choice) probably won’t be. So that leaves Darius Wade and some newbies.

Wade and mid-three-star redshirt freshman Anthony Brown battled for the job this spring, but while it was assumed Brown would win — from a fan perspective, the new guy with question marks is always better than the old guy with question marks — Wade more than held his own.

Wade appeared to have some “QB of the future” potential in 2015 before he got hurt, but he just got a smattering of reps backing up graduate transfer Towles. There were rumors of a transfer, but Wade staked his claim to finally becoming a full-time starter.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College
Darius Wade
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

So, about the tempo thing. BC utilized it against an unsuspecting Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl and saw some success — 40 plays, 29 points in the first half — but it was marginal. The Eagles scored three times on drives that began in Terrapin territory, and two quick-strike touchdown drives were offset by a quick three-and-out and a quicker turnover on downs.

Still, an identity is important, and if a Wade-Hilliman run game is able to move the chains, working with tempo can maximize matchup advantages and wear on a defense.

But if you’re not moving the chains, you’re just wearing on your own defense. That’s a massive risk here.

Defense

Boston College defensive radar

Jim Reid took on an impossible task. The veteran coach was asked to succeed Brown after the 2015 Eagle defense had been a work of brutal art, ranking first in success rate allowed, second in Rushing S&P+, and third in Def. S&P+ despite getting no support from its offense. There was no way to avoid regression.

(There might have been a slight correlation between defensive success and offensive ineptitude. An opponent isn’t going to empty its offensive playbook when it doesn’t fear that your offense is going to score. As you grow more threatening on offense, opponents might try to do more.)

Despite losing three key members of an incredibly disruptive front seven, Reid was able to maintain BC’s identity. BC ranked third in success rate, eighth in Rushing S&P+, and 21st overall (not to mention second in havoc rate).

But the glitches were a little more costly. The Eagles went from allowing 19 gains of 30-plus yards in 2015 (14th in FBS) to allowing 32 (89th), and that extra big play per game contributed to allowing 9.7 more points per game. BC was as efficient as ever, but the big plays carried a little more magnitude.

BC defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Experience in the secondary should smooth out wrinkles. Only safety John Johnson departs, and senior corners Kamrin Moore, Isaac Yiadom, and Gabriel McClary are among the best in the conference, and junior Lukas Denis capable of taking over for Johnson.

NCAA Football: Boston College vs Massachusetts
Isaac Yiadom
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

BC was a little lucky from an injuries standpoint, and Reid didn’t employ a large rotation, so we don’t know about depth. But if the secondary’s fine, the odds are good that the front seven will be, too.

When you’ve got Landry, your ceiling is high no matter who else is involved. The senior end recorded 22 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, five passes defensed, and a nation’s-best seven forced fumbles.

Landry was the primary reason BC ranked first in line havoc rate, and while a couple of battery mates have graduated, junior ends Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray (combined: 17 TFLs, 10.5 sacks) and tackles Ray Smith and Noa Merritt are back, and middle linebacker Connor Strachan is a good mess-cleaner. The senior had 11 TFLs and 3.5 sacks of his own, and Ty Schwab and Sharrieff Grice appear solid.

For the most part, Addazio utilizes redshirts, both to maintain depth and make BC as big and physical as possible. This has not worked on offense, but the defense has benefited. It’ll get a test in 2018, when Landry, Strachan, Schwab, Moore, Yiadom, and McClary are gone, and we’ll see what happens if there’s a run of injuries. But this miniature golden era for BC’s defense should continue.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Clemson
Connor Strachan
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Place kicking and punting hold the heaviest weight in the Special Teams S&P+ equation, and that was a problem for BC. The Eagles missed three PATs and went 1-for-3 on field goals over 40 yards, and place-kicker/punter Mike Knoll averaged just 38.3 yards per kick and ranked 122nd in punt efficiency. That doomed them to a poor rating despite the fact that Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse were a tremendous return combination, and kick coverage was decent.

Knoll’s return might or might not be a good thing, but the loss of both Willis and Rouse is definitely bad.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Northern Illinois 86 1.4 53%
9-Sep Wake Forest 64 -2.4 44%
16-Sep Notre Dame 17 -14.7 20%
23-Sep at Clemson 6 -27.3 6%
30-Sep Central Michigan 97 8.8 70%
7-Oct Virginia Tech 25 -11.0 26%
14-Oct at Louisville 14 -23.0 9%
21-Oct at Virginia 70 -4.6 40%
27-Oct Florida State 3 -25.7 7%
11-Nov N.C. State 27 -9.4 29%
18-Nov at Connecticut 125 11.5 75%
25-Nov at Syracuse 60 -8.0 32%
Projected S&P+ Rk 76
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 121 / 19
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.3 (65)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 71 / 66
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 4.8
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (67%, 72%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.9 (1.1)

The schedule is the thing. Boston College returns enough on both offense and defense to lead you to believe both units could improve. S&P+ projects the Eagles to improve by 10 spots overall.

But ...

  • they face road trips to Clemson and Louisville, both projected in the top 25.
  • they host Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and NC State, all projected in the top 30.
  • of the four opponents projected 70th or worse, BC hosts only one.

That’s rough. It means that the Eagles not only have to improve; they have to improve a lot.

How’s that supposed to happen? Landry, Strachan, and company will assure BC’s defense remains tenacious, but unless an offense with a new quarterback and a new tempo proves capable of scoring in the 20s against good teams, that defense will be mostly for naught.

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