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Coach’s Corner: Evaluating BC - Northern Illinois

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So early, yet so big, for this Eagle team

NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff
A step which must be taken for the Dazzler
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Our Boston Globe style look at tonight's game between Northern Illinois and Boston College.

BC (0-0 overall, 0-0 ACC) at Northern Illinois (0-0 overall, 0-0 MAC)

When: 9:30 PM EDT
Where: Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, IL (23,595)
Line: Danny Sheridan Open - BC by 1.5, The Book - BC by 4.0
Series history: Boston College leads 2-0-0, in DeKalb - this is the first game
Last game vs BC: at Boston College 17 Northern Illinois 14 - 2015
Last game at Northern Illinois: this is the first game
Last BC win: at Boston College 17 Northern Illinois 14 - 2015
Win Streak: Boston College 2

My 2016 record:

Against the Vegas spread: 6-2-0 .750
Straight up: 7-1 -0 .875

Started this weekly post week 5 of 2016

When Northern Illinois Runs:

Advantage: Boston College
Northern Illinois run offense (2016): 239.8 ypg, 16th in the nation, Boston College run defense (2016): 108.5 ypg, 7th in the nation

Northern Illinois returns three starters, who have combined for 46 career starts, on what was a very good offensive line last year for a run heavy team. The run game was good enough to lead the MAC and finish 16th in the country. The line is big, averaging a bit over 300 lbs, so certainly physically ready for a challenge. The Huskies though didn’t play a single game against a Power 5 team, so those stats could be a bit skewed.

NIU loses their leading rusher a year ago but returns Sr Jordan Huff (5’11 224), who gained 703 yards averaging over 6 yards per attempt.

NIU runs more than 50% of the time on first down and although I am not sure the BC defense will be quite as stout against the run this year as they were last year, against all but the upper echelon of competition, the Eagles dominated run games. BC allowed an incredible -1 yard per game against FBS non power five and only allowing 44.6 yards per game against FBS teams with losing records.

The Eagles most likely won’t hold the Huskies to 44.6 yards, but despite this being their goal and a talented back in Huff to execute on it, it is unlikely that NIU will have consistent success on the ground.

When Northern Illinois Passes:

Advantage: Boston College
Northern Illinois pass offense (2016): 224.0 ypg, 73rd in the nation, Boston College pass defense (2016): 205.6 ypg, 34th in the nation

The QB position should have more stability in 2017 after Jr Ryan Graham, who appeared in nine games takes over for Anthony Maddie at QB for the Huskies who were ravaged by injury behind center last year. Graham was in and out of the lineup due to those injuries as well as an inability to move the team. Late in the season he threw for 227 yards and 3 TDs in a close loss to Toledo, but was lost for the season to concussions in the next game vs Eastern Michigan.

Just having healthy bodies, should really help.

The Huskies offensive line returns three starters including first team pre-season all MAC LT Max Scharping (6’6 312 Jr), who will have his hands full with Harold Landry, Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray. As positive as the line appears to be, it isn’t rated in the top 57 in the country per Phil Steele.

The key here though is that the Huskies just don’t throw the ball downfield very often. NIU tied for #1 in the country in sacks allowed last year, giving up just 8 for a negative 47 yards. For comparison, BC gave up 28 sacks and recorded 47 defensively.

The NIU receiving corps does not appear to pose a deep threat. The returning three receivers who got snaps last year all are considered possession receivers.

Dink and dunk has not been a very effective strategy in the past few seasons against BC defenses and provided the Eagles don’t go to sleep and get beat deep, bodes well.

When Boston College Runs:

Advantage: Boston College
Boston College run offense (2016): 149.1 ypg, 96th in the nation, Northern Illinois run defense (2016): 200.8 ypg, 88th in the nation

Something has to give here.

Steve Addazio offenses have been run based and certainly the success the team had in 2013 and 2014 were predicated on the run, whether it be Andre Williams or Tyler Murphy, the Eagles leveraged the offensive line and what was honestly diversity in the run game, to consecutive bowls.

The past few years that hasn’t been the case.

Precipitous slides in offensive line talent, experience and play along with the Jon Hilliman injury and a real lack of high level depth at running back and the Eagles took major steps backwards.

This season though, the offensive line looks to be more strength than weakness, although not up to the level of O-Line U teams of the past and with Hilliman healthy and AJ Dillon in the fold, the corner might be turned.

NIU on the other hand struggled against the run last season, giving up more than 200 yards per game against a sub standard schedule. They did however, improve as the season went on, going from giving up over 235 yards per game in contests 1-4 to just over 175 yards per game in their final four games. This was noted as one of the reasons the Huskies finished 4-1 in their last five after opening 1-6.

Statistically, NIU has declined against the rush every year over the past four and with a less experienced outfit this year and an improved and experienced Eagle offensive line who will called on to take the pressure off QB Darius Wade (I realize it’s currently listed as Wade or Anthony Brown - but have to think Wade starts and it doesn’t really change the scenario around reliability on the run game either way), BC should find success.

When Boston College Passes:

Advantage: Northern Illinois
Boston College pass offense (2016): 143.8 ypg, 120th in the nation, Northern Illinois pass defense (2016): 250.7 ypg, 93rd in the nation

Both sides here, like their run counterparts, have something to prove.

The BC pass offense has finished 120 (2016), 125 (2015), 124 (2014) and 114 (2013) in Steve Addazio’s four seasons in Chestnut Hill. Now it can be argued that in two of those season, 2014 and 2015, there was no real way for BC to have a productive air attack, based either on injuries (15) or personnel (Tyler Murphy - 2014), but even in years when given true drop back gun slinger types in Chase Rettig and Patrick Towles, this team couldn’t get it done.

Enter Darius Wade and/or Anthony Brown.

Wade, out almost two seasons, between the injury in 2015 against FSU and the red shirt last year and Brown after taking a redshirt year of his own in 2016, makes it difficult to know exactly what the Eagles have under center and in particular how they will react on the road, game one.

The position does have the benefit of the most experienced receiving corps the Eagles have fielded in many years, including what should become a binky in tight end Tommy Sweeney and a speed threat on the outside in the ever improving Jeff Smith.

The short passing game in particular indicates Sweeney to be a prime target.

NIU on the other hand was a big play secondary, with 14 picks last year, good enough for #35 in the country, but tended to give up a lot of big plays (bottom third in both 10+ and 20+ yard catches and was also near the bottom in yards per game allowed.

Until the Eagles show differently, on the road in an opener and against an opportunistic secondary, the nod goes to the Huskies.

Boston College Keys To Victory:

1. Limit game one offensive mistakes - They are going to happen, but its when and how impactful they are in either giving away points, drive killing penalties or field position altering turnovers.

2. Control both lines of scrimmage - The offensive line has to show the level of improvement they made from a year ago to take the pressure off the quarterbacks and let the focus fall on the run game. If Wade or Brown is forced to win the game throwing the ball because the Eagles can’t run the ball, that will not bode well.

The defensive line, although I question if they can be as good as last year’s against the run, needs to control the game and one dimensionalize the NIU offense.

3. The Defense sets up the offense - Regardless of the modest hype, few expect the Eagle offense to be drastically better than it was in 2016. The tempo, a bit more of a passing game and an improved running game will assist, but this is not likely to be a 400 yard/30 point per game team. Getting a defensive touchdown or certainly creating short fields for the offense will help.

Northern Illinois Keys To Victory:

  1. Some level of ball control - They would prefer to do it via the ground, but the short passing game, with receivers designed to make that work, could allow extension of drives and therefore the ability to create or flip field position.
  2. Make the big play on both sides of the ball - BC was fourth in the country in plays of 10+ yards allowed, but was only 79th in the country of plays of 40 yards or more. The Huskies have not been a big play offensive team, but will struggle to maintain drives against the Eagle defense. It is far more likely that the NIU secondary makes the big play, even for a score that will most likely be needed.
  3. Win special teams - Neither of these teams is what one would consider great on special teams, but Northern Illinois struggled a year ago in the punt and FG game and then lost their 1st team MAC kickoff returner. NIU needs to end the game on the plus side of the special teams battle.

Prediction:

At first glance, this looks like a dangerous game. On the road, uncertainty at quarterback and a team with a solid history who gave BC all they could handle at Alumni just a few years ago.

However, BC should be able to control both lines of scrimmage and with neither team likely to make a big play through the air, the Eagles should be able to create field position for the offense. Provided BC makes no more than one truly disastrous play offensively, the Eagles should be able to generate enough points to capture a win against a team that has seen their record decline every year over the past three, going from 12-2 in 2013, to 11-3 in 2014, to 8-6 in 2015, to 5-7 in 2016.

Virtually any road to a bowl game includes winning this game. The Eagles take the first step on that path tonight.

Boston College 24 Northern Illinois 16