On Saturday afternoon, the Boston College Eagles hosted the Northern Illinois Huskies at Alumni Stadium to kickoff the 2023 college football season here in Chestnut Hill. BC is coming off of a disappointing 2022 campaign that saw them go 3-9, tied for the program’s worst record in a decade. NIU faced similar struggles last season, going 3-9 themselves just one year after claiming a MAC championship. Northern Illinois proved to be more put-together to start the season, claiming a 27-24 victory over Boston College in overtime.
The offenses for both teams couldn’t figure things out for a while. BC had some miscommunication in the passing game while NIU had some open receivers but Lombardi couldn’t complete his passes. By the end of the first quarter, Boston College had subbed in Thomas Castellanos at quarterback and immediately found a bit more success. Castellanos ran down the sideline for a big first play and injected some energy into the Eagles offense that Morehead couldn’t provide. But the passing game continued to be an issue and they committed a number of penalties, so BC couldn’t manage a drive into scoring range in the entire first half. Castellanos especially was inaccurate with his passes, often overthrowing receivers by a few feet, and Morehead never got subbed back in to try with his arm.
For most of the half, NIU couldn’t score either. The most successful play for the Huskies was a checkdown pass on a broken play that went for about 20 yards. Otherwise they could not complete many passes due to a mix of good coverage and bad throws, while their rushing attack was only moderately successful. But they finally broke through with a deep bomb with just a few minutes remaining in the half that set them up in the redzone, eventually converting for a wildcat TD from Lynch to Brown. NIU closed out the first half with a 7-0 lead.
The second half opened with a dominant drive by Northern Illinois in both the rushing and passing game. NIU figured out that their longer pass plays were not working efficiently, and instead opted to just dink-and-dunk all the way to the endzone to make it 14-0 just 1:27 into the second half.
Emmett Morehead found himself back in the game at QB to start the second half for the Eagles and connected with Joseph Griffin Jr. on the sideline almost immediately for a 15-yard gain, displaying a stark contrast with Castellanos’s bad passing struggles. But he was inaccurate when getting flushed out of the pocket and couldn’t string together a drive, forcing BC to punt once again. But a fumble just a few plays later led to a short field for BC and Castellanos came back in to throw TD pass to Lewis Bond, cutting NIU’s lead to 14-7.
But as quickly as Castellanos put BC up, he brought them back down to Earth. On the first play of BC’s next drive, he threw a deep ball badly short and right into the hands of the defender for an interception. That kind of playcall may have worked for a pocket passer like Morehead, but it’s just putting Castellanos in a terrible spot and not playing to his strengths at all. He’s a rushing threat that wasn’t being asked to utilize his legs. NIU proceeded to use their good field possession to drive down the field once again, plugging slowly along for 12 plays until eventually ending up in the endzone off of a 1-yard rush to extend their lead to 21-7 with under 10 minutes to play in the game.
BC’s next drive to stay alive saw both Castellanos and Morehead being subbed in and out to start, with Castellanos making a crazy scramble and throw on fourth down to keep their hopes alive. A hands to the face penalty helped the Eagles push down the field, followed by a pass interference penalty in the endzone on 4th down that brought them even closer. Castellanos was able to rush to the corner of the endzone to bring BC back within a TD with just under 6 minutes to play.
The Eagles defense set themselves up for a couple of nice stops on third down on the next drive, but a roughing the passer penalty and a pass interference penalty gave NIU a new set of downs each time, allowing them to drain the clock and keep plugging along downfield. They finally were able to get a stop around midfield and the ball back with 3:23 remaining, but not before they had to burn the remainder of their timeouts. After a scary play that was initially called as an INT and overturned, Castellanos was able to drive the Eagles down the field quickly with a long rush, pass to O’Keefe, and then a 30-yard bomb to Jaden Williams for a TD with 1:44 remaining to tie the game at 21-21. Neither team could put together any drives to end the game with a score, so the tie game went into OT.
Northern Illinois won the OT coin toss and chose to play defense first, a significant advantage in the first and second OTs. BC couldn’t get a first down in their first possession, settling for a field goal that Liam Connor kicked fair, meaning NIU would need to match it to extend the game, or score a TD to win. They drove down in just a few plays to do just that, ending the game on a 1-yard rush to win 27-24.
The offensive line looked competent! BC had mixed success in the rushing attack in the game, but it looked better than the passing game. Plus the passing issues were rarely due to QB pressure, as the OL did a decent job of protecting whoever was in at QB. With the OL playing at a decent level again, it will allow the rest of the offense to function if they can figure out some of their other issues.
What’s going on with the QB situation? Emmett Morehead had barely started the game before Thomas Castellanos was subbed in to replace him for the remainder of the first half. Then with Morehead starting the second half, Castellanos was subbed in even faster and led BC to its first score, but was picked off soon after trying to pass deep downfield. Both QBs have their own strengths but aren’t quite fully-developed players, so it’s unclear what the long-term strategy was there. And the playcalls didn’t seem to be matched to the QB that was out there, as the BC staff was making Castellanos throw some deep passes that he is simply not good at. Though he was able to make it work when his receivers were wide open.
There are some serious problems with communication and execution in the passing game. Castellanos especially struggled to pass the ball, but even with Morehead the team struggled. Missed throws being literal yards away from receivers at times were a result of a combination of mistiming and poor passing. BC’s offense totaled 168 passing yards in an OT game and it will be a serious problem for a team that is likely to be playing from behind in a lot of games.
The BC defense is... TBD. The Eagles looked good on defense for much of the game, limiting the Huskies to just 7 points in the first half and stuffing a lot of rushing plays. But once NIU was able to regroup at halftime and came up with a new gameplan, the Eagles struggled to keep up, especially when they started to use some wildcat formations and diverse offensive sets.