Our Boston Globe style look at tonight’s game between Virginia Tech and Boston College.
#16/#19 Virginia Tech (4-1 overall, 0-1 ACC) at Boston College (2-3 overall, 0-2 ACC)
When: 7:15 PM EDT, TV: ESPN 2, WatchESPN
Where: Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill, MA (44,500)
Line: Danny Sheridan opening - Virginia Tech by 17, The Book - Virginia Tech by 13.7
Series history: Virginia Tech leads 17-8 , in Chestnut Hill - Virginia Tech leads 8-4
Last game vs BC: at Virginia Tech 49 Boston College 0 - 2016
Last game at BC: Virginia Tech 26 at Boston College 10 - 2015
Last BC win: Boston College 33 at Virginia Tech 31 - 2014
Series Win Streak: Virginia Tech - 2
My 2017 record vs the Vegas spread: 4-1
My 2017 record straight up: 5-0
Last week: at Boston College 28 Central Michigan 8, Clemson 31 at Virginia Tech 17
When Virginia Tech Runs:
Advantage: Boston College
Virginia Tech run offense: 192.6 ypg, 46th in the nation, Boston College run defense: 259.0 ypg, 123rd in the nation
So far in 2017, it appears that the situation and the opponent has dictated the import and therefore the productivity of the Tech run game. In two games against FBS teams with winning records, the Hokies have average 36.5 attempts for 162 yards while against non winning teams, 59.5 attempts for 279 yards. Of note is that the per carry average is very much the same regardless.
However, how they got there against the two quality opponents in Clemson and West Virginia was very different. Great success, based on the QB run in the opener against the Mountaineers and very little vs the Tigers.
This was not expected to be an elite offensive line coming into the season, despite three returning starters.
In the West Virginia game, it was QB Josh Jackson, who did the bulk of the damage with 101 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Jackson though, has just 56 yards over the next four games.
The backs do it by committee, with six players with 18 or more carriers. JR Travon McMillian would get the lion’s share of the work.
Virginia Tech, like Boston College, has had troubles creating big runs, with just 4 carries of greater than 20 yards all season. Provided the Eagles can control Jackson, they get a slight edge in this one.
When Virginia Tech Passes:
Virginia Tech pass offense: 281.6 ypg, 31st in the nation, Boston College pass defense: 154.0 ypg, 12th in the nation
Of all the match-ups in the game, to me, this is the most intriguing. BC hasn’t allowed any team in excess of 203 yards all season, that occurred in game one at Northern Illinois. They are also tied for 5th in the country in yards per attempt at just 5.0, 12th in completion percentage (51.3), 4th in passer rating and 10th in interceptions.
People will say that’s because the Eagles run defense has been so porous and there is validity to that. But the last two weeks in particular against Clemson and Central Michigan, BC has looked down right stingy and that is without doing what most felt the Eagles would do in sacking the QB. BC has just 9 all season. Much of the credit is with the secondary.
We have said often that it would be hard for Anthony Brown to throw if the Eagles can’t run, so the same thing should apply here where if the BC defense can’t stop the run, then teams passing on their own terms should do better, but they haven’t.
RS-Fr Josh Jackson has been more than solid for VT in his first season at QB. He completes 65% of his passes and has thrown for 12 TDs with only three interceptions, two of which came last week vs Clemson.
Unlike some of the teams BC has seen recently, the Hokies are almost exclusively a one receiver team, with SR WR Cam Phillips having 41 receptions and a team high 5 TDs and FR WR Sean Savoy next with just 18 catches. Phillips has 206 career catches and will set Tech record with just five more. Dependent on which side Phillips lines up on, one would expect Isaac Yiadom or Kamrin Moore to get help over the top from Lukas Denis, who is tied for the nation’s lead in interceptions.
RB Steven Peoples has been productive out of the backfield, something that I looked for Central Michigan to exploit last week, but they didn’t. Of People’s three catches, two have gone for scores.
The Virginia Tech offensive line starts two red shirt seniors, a senior, a red shirt junior and a true junior, so they are very experienced and done a good job to date in protecting Josh Jackson.
The call of even may look like a cop out, but very difficult to figure out if the Tech passing game is legit or if the Eagle defense vs the pass is legit.
When Boston College Runs:
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Boston College run offense: 159.2 ypg, 71st in the nation, Virginia Tech run defense: 115.6 ypg, 29th in the nation
Outside the opening contest against West Virginia, where the Hokies were gashed for 221 yards and 6.3 ypc, they have been extremely good. Granted the opposition of Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion was less than stellar, but even against Clemson who got BC for 342 yards, the Hokies held them to 146.
Tech is stout in the interior, with 6’3 335 lb Jesse Settle at NT, but the strength of this group is the linebackers. 6’5 250 lb athletic freak, Tremaine Edmunds is a first team pre-season all ACC pick and he gets a lot of help from MLB Andrew Motuapuaka.
Unlike Boston College where under better defenses, the secondary doesn’t get too many tackles, the Hokies will commit DB support heavily. Will Edmunds and Motuapuaka are the top tacklers, the next three are all defensive backs.
Under Steve Addazio, BC has gained 44 yards (2016), 75 yards (2015), 258 yards (2014) and 196 yards (2013) on the ground, but has failed to get 15 first downs in any of these games.
Keys to the run game in those wins were big plays by Andre Williams and Tyler Murphy. It is generally a tall task to run the ball effectively without popping those big plays against an aggressive Bud Foster front.
When Boston College Passes:
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Boston College pass offense: 159.0 ypg, 116th in the nation, Virginia Tech pass defense: 199.8 ypg, 40th in the nation
There is no secret that the BC passing game has struggled this season. The Eagles have eclipsed the 200 yard mark just once and despite the hype around Anthony Brown and an improved air attack, it has yet to materialize.
For the Eagles to win tonight, the ability to throw on early downs to keep the secondary home and open up the run game is critical. If they are unable to do so (and most likely even if they are), look for Foster to continually send pressure at Brown looking to confuse and force turnovers
VT has 12 sacks on the year with 3 1⁄2 of them from the secondary.
The Hokies have no problems leaving their corners on islands to cover and in CBs Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson, they have two of the ACC’s best.
The Hokies have not allowed BC more than 143 yards in the air over the last four contests (80 - 2016, 143 - 2015, 110 - 2014, 93 - 2013).
Brown needs time, the ability to live making throws to Tommy Sweeney to move the chains and to hit at least one big play down field against a team where the big play is possible.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Boston College: punting: 40.8 - 81st, punt return: 18.07 - 11th, kickoff returns: 21.2 - 59th, punt coverage: 6.5 - 65th, kickoff coverage: 18.71 - 46th, FG: 66.7% - T74
Virginia Tech: punting: 43.8 - 33rd, punt return: 10.9 - 35th, kickoff returns: 24.3 - 27th, punt coverage: 0.33 - 8th, kickoff coverage: 14.0 - 3rd, FG: 57.1% - T99
Special teams have been something that has been called out previously in the prediction section or a key to victory, but never in its own individual section, until now. The case be easily made that the BC special teams have been the highlight of the season to date. The punting of Mike Knoll kept the Eagles in it at Clemson and the return game with Michael Walker was directly responsible for two touchdowns last week vs Central Michigan.
For the first time all year, the Eagles don’t look like they have an edge. I realize it was always trendy to call out Beamer-Ball and how good the Virginia Tech special teams were, but in honesty, that waned toward the end of his coaching career.
This year though, both teams are strong in that area.
The reasons to give the edge to the Hokies are the coverage teams. The VT punt cover team has allowed a measly 0.33 yards per return, while the kickoff team only 14 per attempt. This is an area that BC needs an edge in with Michael Walker and may not get.
Tech kicker Joey Slye and BC’s Colton Lichtenberg are both struggling a bit right now, but Slye has better range and therefore the more dangerous weapon.
Boston College Keys To Victory:
1. Play action passing on early downs - This is an area Steve Addazio highlighted in his weekly presser, but definitely needs to improve. Teams simply load up on the BC run game because there is no fear of the pass. Keeping the VT linebackers in check on early downs and giving the WRs and in particular, Tommy Sweeney a chance to win one on one matchups with safeties and linebackers will make both the run and Anthony Brown and the pass better. Virginia Tech has held teams to 26.8% on 3rd down (13th nationally), so not a good place to find yourself in, which is bound to happen if things don’t change. VT D 4.71 ypc vs ranked teams, 2.09 vs unranked
2. Control the QB run - Games 1-4 brought us the designed QB run. Central Michigan did some of that but in Josh Jackson, we should see the return to the QB run. Jackson has rushed for 157 yards on the season, but 101 of those came in the opening win vs West Virginia. In the other games, he either didn’t need to (Delaware, East Carolina, Old Dominion) or couldn’t (Clemson). Have to think this is an integral part of the game plan this week.
3. Win the defensive side of the passing game battle - This is not your father’s Virginia Tech team. The days of winning on the ground and throwing only when necessary have been replaced by a much more balanced offense, one that leans pass. Last year, Jerod Evans threw for 5 TDs in the 49-0 rout. Josh Jackson is poised, despite a lack of experience, but there is a real question as to whether the 2017 Tech passing game is for real, based on overall competition. The same can be said for BC’s pass defense and whether the opposition’s success running the ball has masked the good the defense has done vs the pass or not.
Virginia Tech Keys To Victory:
1. Keep offensive balance - Virginia Tech is 27th in the nation in total offense, averaging 474.2 yards a contest. They are a roughly 60/40 pass to run team, so not the run heavy teams of Hokie past. The West Virginia game couldn’t have been better scripted from that balance perspective. The middle three games were essentially throw aways and the Clemson game brought a dose of reality offensively. Josh Jackson needs to find Cam Phillips and get protection from an offensive line that has allowed six sacks all year, although four of them came vs Clemson and WVU.
2. Get your tempo back - VT is 15th nationally in plays per game (BC is #10), like most teams, they generate tempo from first downs. Against Clemson, no first downs, no tempo. The more three and outs from BC, the less likely tempo is. VT ran 58 plays vs Clemson and 72 vs West Virginia and averaged just under 80 in their three easy wins.
3. Create the negative play - How well Anthony Brown can handle the mixed looks, blitz packages and speed of this defense may be the story of the game. Virginia Tech creates 7.4 negative yardage plays per game (19th). Confusion equates to negative yards and turnovers.
While as Steve Addazio points out, it is true that BC and Virginia Tech have split the last four games in the series, the last two have been pretty ugly, particularly 2016.
There are several reasons to believe the BC defense will be capable of keeping the Eagles in the game tonight. Much of what Virginia Tech has accomplished has been done against sub par competition, so a bit unclear if they can consistently move the ball, despite solid early season stats.
The issue is on the offensive side of the ball, where BC has really struggled for quite some time against the Hokies. Even the games the Eagles have won, they didn’t move the ball consistently, but benefited from big run plays in 2014 and from four turnovers forced in 2013, they are unlikely to get help tonight.
Look for the game to stay reasonably close, but also expect Hokie pressure to force a pick six or turnover that leads to at least one score and a result that covers the spread and is a bit more comfortable than the way the game actually plays out.
Virginia Tech 27 Boston College 10