Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Virginia Tech at Boston College: Defenses & Special Teams

Boston College has been hit or miss on the defensive front this year: they’ve had exactly one good and one not so good performance in two wins. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, has been tested by tougher offenses and done alright, but have lost that many games. Given how the offenses have performed – with varying levels of inconsistency – this may be the defenses’ time to shine.

Boston College Defense

The Eagles’ first game was a rather meek performance by a unit that has typically been seen as respectable. You can blame it on a vanilla gameplan, rust, Weber State’s distracting purple uniforms, whatever. The fact remains that the secondary was very soft that afternoon, but Boston College won anyway as Weber State was little match for them in the talent department. Flash forward to a week later against the Kent State Golden Flashes, when the whole defense looked improved. The first-team defense only allowed 6 points in the game; it was much of the second string that let Kent State gain their only touchdown of the day. So which defense do we get following this bye against Virginia Tech, and who will step up?

I think what we saw against Kent State was more along the lines of what we’ll see against the Hokies, and for the rest of 2010. That unit looked a lot more like the defense we saw last year in general, even though that group got bombed in Blacksburg. As you may hear me say another time or two this week, however, I feel much better about this game being at home. The 2009 Eagles’ road struggles were well-documented, and their home successes also were, but this group is a little more seasoned now and a lot more likely to put up a W in Chestnut Hill as opposed to elsewhere. That’s not to say the defense didn’t do admirably on the road last season (because on balance, they did alright), but they sure didn’t at Virginia Tech. In fact, you could make the case that the VT game was the only truly awful game they had all year.

One group who I’m almost certain will step up are, of course, the linebackers. In fact, with a healthy Mark Herzlich, this is potentially one of the most feared linebacking corps in the nation. Luke Kuechly, the boy wonder himself, leads this group now. Kuechly is second in the conference in tackles per game at 10.5, only behind Alex Wujciak (whose brother is coming to BC next year to play defense as well). I foresee an ACC Defensive Player of the Year award in his future before he graduates, and I’m sure many of you have had similar visions. Mark Herzlich, the heart and soul of Boston College’s defense, is still shaking off the rust, but his football instincts are still there and he remains an exceptionally talented player. Eventually, he will catch up. Finally, throw in freshman Kevin Pierre-Louis who will only get better with time, and you have a sensational threesome behind the defensive line.

Speaking of, DE Alex Albright had a nice game against Kent State, and there was at least a hint of a pass rush against the Golden Flashes (but none against the Weber State Wildcats). They just might need to have one against the very mobile dual-threat in Tyrod Taylor, especially if star RB Ryan Williams is out (as is currently expected), though Taylor could simply run the ball himself, too. Of course, when the other team is going to go to the air, you need a strong secondary, and that bunch played better against Kent State than Weber State (which doesn’t say much, seeing as how they were dreadful against Weber State). Overall, the Eagles defense was much tighter against the Golden Flashes, and they’ll need to keep it up heading into the bulk of ACC play.

Virginia Tech Defense

The Hokies, in their three games, have allowed 33 (against a top 5 team), 21 (against an FCS team), and 27 (against a decent FBS team). Their average of points allowed per game is 27, a mediocre 82nd in FBS. That would seem to suggest that a team capable of scoring points could put up about 25-30 on them – but the big question is, is BC capable of scoring points? Despite two comfortable wins, they appear to have trouble moving the football. Boise State and ECU most certainly do not, so how will BC’s offense stack up against Virginia Tech’s defense?

One word that has marked Bud Foster’s defense over the first three games is “inconsistency.” Their most recent contest against the ECU Pirates was in many ways a tale of two games: they went from a crappy first half to a solid second half defensively. Much like Boston College’s defense has wavered up and down, you just don’t quite know what you’re going to get out of the Hokies, as they’ve largely failed to live up to expectations on both sides of the ball.

Boston College’s offensive line was bad in Week 2, no two ways about it. Virginia Tech managed to pressure ECU quarterback/former BC quarterback Dominique Davis later on in that game with a pass rush, so you can bet that’s something the Eagles will have to contend with throughout Saturday’s game. Foster will paint a target on statuesque BC quarterback Dave Shinskie, and if that offensive line doesn’t give him the extra second or two he needs, he will end up on the turf several times (and hopefully won’t fumble). Kent State’s defensive line controlled BC’s offensive line, and the Eagles still somehow managed 26 points. The blueprint is there for Virginia Tech, and another bad day by BC’s offensive line will give the Hokies plenty of opportunities to disrupt both the passing and running phases of the Eagles’ offensive game. As for the Hokies’ ability to get to the quarterback, however, they’re alright at it. VT has registered six sacks in three games this season (1 against BSU, 2 against JMU, and 3 against ECU).

While the Eagles have totally stuffed the run against their light opposition (54 ypg), Virginia Tech has allowed a good chunk more at 130.7. Again, it comes down to how well BC’s offensive line is able to block this week against Virginia Tech’s front line, but historically, Montel Harris has not run well against this team. In 2009, he had 43 yards on 11 carries (in a game where BC fell way behind but didn’t quite abandon the run until late), while in 2008, Montel racked up only 61 yards on 15 carries. Sure, he could gash this defense and have a big day, but past results suggest that Virginia Tech will limit the BC run. That will make Shinskie have to beat this defense, so cross your fingers on that one.

Special teams

Boston College’s kicking unit appears to be among the best in the ACC. Punter Ryan Quigley leads the conference in average punt yards, while freshman Nate Freese is a perfect 5-5 on field goals and 7-7 on PATs. As far as the rest of special teams, well, not so good. BC is 9th in the conference in punt return yards and 11th in kickoff return yards. The kickoff coverage is OK for the Eagles, coming in at 5th.

Virginia Tech is 5th on kickoff return and 10th in punt return yards this season. They also happen to average the 2nd-fewest amount of yards on punts (26 yards), while their kicker Chris Hazley is 4-5 on field goals and 11 of 11 on extra points.


Based on the body of work of these teams in both of their early games, there’s some good and some bad to consider. Boston College followed up a bad first week with an improved second week, while Virginia Tech has flipped between good and bad during its first three games; in the ECU game, they shook off a bad first half and recovered for a decent overall performance. There’s really no telling what we’re going to get out of either one of these teams. We know the general gameplans: Virginia Tech will try to make Shinskie beat them, while BC’s primary goal will be to stop Tyrod Taylor (in the absence of Ryan Williams – if he plays, which he probably won’t, it’s another dimension added to their offense).

I’m not honestly sure which team has the advantage here, as we know VT’s defense is well-coached but have been hit or miss this year, and BC has shown us some good things but only at times. I may be projecting some wishful thinking, but I think that being at home in front of a full house will energize this Eagles defense, and they’ll ride their confidence from Kent State into a decent performance on Saturday.

Further, this game may come down to kicks if it’s close enough, and so far, so good for BC. A good punt here and some field goals there might mean the difference between victory and defeat, so if Quigley and Freese keep it up, that could be another plus for the Eagles.

Week 4 picks tomorrow. I’m not doing terribly this season (yet).

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