And In That Corner … The Boston College Eagles and their hopes to run through Notre Dame

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The college football season is long, maybe not long enough for its fans, but long, nonetheless. By late November, a 5-5 season highlighted by a plodding, but effective, run game can feel even longer. With plenty to worry about as A.J. Dillon presumably finishes up his collegiate career, as Steve Addazio tries to save his job, as Boston College reaches for bowl eligibility, Julian Benbow of The Boston Globe had little reason to take the time to to preview this weekend’s matchup with Notre Dame (2:30 ET; NBC).

Yet he did just that. Much appreciated, Julian.

DF: Boston College has had a yo-yo of a season, winning two games in a row only once. That season-opening momentum came to an abrupt halt in a blowout loss at home to Kansas. (Kansas at home?!?!) Before getting into that head-scratcher, let’s focus on the headline and the Eagles’ sole consistent factor. Junior A.J. Dillon is averaging 145.1 rushing yards per game this year. Remove struggling against Clemson (only natural), and he has averaged 172.6 yards across the last seven games. Boston College does not necessarily have a strong offensive line and it has no passing game. How has Dillon maintained this production rate?

JB: Honestly, it’s pretty fascinating seeing Dillon just hammer away at defenses. You would think that there would be a breaking point after running into stacked boxes almost 20 times. Dillon looks at it the other way around, though. He’s not running into them, they’re running into him. The bet is that as the game wears on, defenders get sick of taking hits from him. He runs north-south, takes small yards as wins and waits for the big payoff. For every big run he’s broken the past few weeks, there are a handful of carries where he had to grind out yards just to keep drives alive. He takes more pride in those runs and considers them as a sign of dependability.

Boston College’s mediocrity has largely robbed junior running back A.J. Dillon of the appropriate accolades. With 4,148 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns in less than three seasons, he has been among college football’s best the last few years. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Does Dillon ever talk about Notre Dame? Or has he this week? Irish fans lament him as a missed recruiting opportunity, hand-wringing compounded by a current lack of pure talent at the position in South Bend. The grandson of a Notre Dame legend, Thom Gatewood, Dillon was not necessarily pursued as aggressively as he could have been by the Irish.

The first time we talked about Notre Dame was two years ago when Dillon was a freshman. He’s very close to his grandfather and their relationship had a huge impact on how he approaches the game. When Dillon made his official visit to South Bend, Gatewood went with him.

There were several factors that went into the decision. He saw the legacy his grandfather carved out at Notre Dame and wanted the same thing — but he wanted it closer to home. He fractured his fibula during his senior year. Being close to family during a tough time gave him some perspective. At the same time, he knew going to Boston College would give him a chance to make an immediate impact, which is what ended up happening.

Can I safely assume Dillon will be heading to the NFL after this season? As a college football fan, it’s disappointing, but it would be the prudent move.

Dillon hasn’t said anything, but it certainly looks that way. He isn’t super high in a lot of the draft rankings, generally projected as a mid- to late-round pick. There’s a recent trend on the defensive side of the ball of players returning for their senior season to improve their draft stock (Harold Landry and Zach Allen). The last Eagles skill position player (not including tight ends) to be drafted in the past 10 years was Matt Ryan, and he was a four-year player. Dillon has a decision to make but jumping to the league seems logical.

Dillon has not had to carry the load alone this year thanks to sophomore running back David Bailey. Not many backup running backs average 98.2 yards per game, as Bailey has the last six weeks (again excluding Clemson). Is there a complementary aspect to him that makes him a fit with Dillon, or is it just more physical pounding after Dillon’s initial successes?

There’s definitely some hammer-and-anvil to Dillon and Bailey. They call themselves the “Buffalo Boys” because they’re huge and they stampede through defenses. Steve Addazio doesn’t look at them as redundant weapons. Having two backs that hover around 250 pounds doesn’t give defenders a break. There have been plenty of times when Dillon’s opened a drive with carries that go for 3, 5 or 6 yards, softening up the defense for Bailey to break off a long run. It’s the style of football that Addazio wants to play, so he keeps the cupboard full of big, physical backs.

The Eagles have desperately needed the duo since junior quarterback Anthony Brown was lost for the season with a knee injury. Sophomore Dennis Grosel has been middling in his relief. What does he bring to the table that Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea might worry about, if anything?

When you hear the word “intangible,” it is reasonable to be skeptical, but Grosel has leadership qualities that earned him a lot of respect in the locker room. He doesn’t rattle. He’s poised on the field and at the podium. He also has a knack for making plays on third down, if not through the air then with his legs. The numbers haven’t been amazing, but he won’t single-handedly lose the Eagles a game. 

As I look through Boston College’s defensive stats, nothing strikes me as impressive. Maybe that’s too blunt, but that’s what comes with giving up 32.1 points per game. Am I missing something?

Nope. It’s bad. It’s the worst in the Addazio era and the third-worst in Eagles history in terms of total yards allowed. Addazio knew it would be bad before the season started because losing eight starters is never a good thing, but I don’t think he imagined it being this bad. At the start of the season, he described the defense as “bend don’t break,” which is a kiss of death. Stopping the run has been impossible and miscommunication in the secondary has been way too frequent.

Now in his eighth year at Boston College, Steve Addazio has never won more than seven games with the Eagles. At 5-5 currently, it is unlikely he breaks that barrier this season. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Jumping to the aforementioned Kansas debacle … The Eagles gave up 567 yards to the Jayhawks. Not to gloss over how calamitous that was, or perhaps not to exaggerate its effects, but to me it underscores how disappointing this 5-5 season has been in Chestnut Hill. With Dillon on hand to power the offense for one last year, more was expected, right?

That’s an interesting one, only because the way the 2018 season ended was so deflating. Boston College beat a ranked team (Miami) for the first time since 2014, hosted College GameDay and was sitting at 7-2 going into Clemson. A nine-win season seemed realistic, then they lost their last three games of the season and went to Dallas for a bowl game that didn’t happen (weather). Last year was supposed to be the year. The way that crumbled kind of muted the expectations for this season. Still, sitting at 5-5 and staring down the very real possibility of another seven-win season is disappointing. The inevitable question is whether that’s just the ceiling for Addazio. 

Speaking of inevitable, at 5-5 and with 5-7 more likely than 6-6, is Steve Addazio on the hot seat? He is exactly 43-43 in seven years at Boston College, not once winning more than seven games. Eagles athletic director Martin Jarmond did not hire Addazio, never a step toward a struggling coach keeping his job.

Addazio’s perpetually on the hot seat — at least when those annual lists pop up. How you judge the job Addazio’s done depends on how you feel about five seven-win seasons and five trips to bowl games for Boston College and that, in turn, says a lot about where you see BC’s standing in the ACC. It’s been a long time since the Matt Ryan days when they were the conference’s shiny new satellite in the Northeast. Cracking that top tier is tough.  

And yes, I’ll have to insist on a prediction. Notre Dame is favored by 19.5. Do you expect Saturday to be that lopsided?

I’ve got Notre Dame and it could get lopsided because when the Eagles lose, they lose big. Going on the road, on a big stage against a ranked team in a rivalry game could get ugly.