By: Bradley Smart
For the second straight week, the Boston College football team faces a stiff ACC test, traveling to Louisville to take on the previously-ranked Cardinals. A 14-point loss to North Carolina State knocked Bobby Petrino’s injury-plagued squad out of the AP Top 25, but this is still a team featuring defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Last season, Jackson buried the Eagles, padding his resume with seven total touchdowns in a 52-7 beatdown. Here’s an overview of this week’s matchup, as Boston College seeks to win their first game against Louisville in the last five tries.
Louisville on offense
The Eagles will have their hands full on defense, as the Cardinals enter ranked 10th in the country in offensive S&P+. This is in large part due to the consistently good play of Jackson, the defending Heisman trophy winner. Jackson “only” accounted for three touchdowns in last weeks loss to North Carolina State, but he’s still one of the most dangerous players in all of college football.
Louisville also leans heavily on him. Last game, Jackson threw 47 passes and had 19 carries, accounting for a whopping 66 of the Cardinals 77 plays. This is a common trend throughout the whole season, as the dual-threat quarterback has piled up almost half the teams total rushing yards on the season.
This was particularly evident in last seasons matchup, as 32 of the 42 plays run with Jackson in the game involved him in some way. He broke out for 185 rushing yards and three touchdowns, adding four more touchdowns through the air. The seven score effort in just three quarters of work cemented his Heisman legacy.
This time around, he faces a Boston College defense that isn’t quite up to par with the group he faced in 2016. The Eagles ranked 21st in defensive S&P+ a year ago, including finishing eighth in rushing defense and 28th in passing defense. This time around, they enter ranked 48th, 100th, and 41st. Not exactly a promising sign.
However, the Eagles edge rushers are coming off their best game of the season. Zach Allen was named the ACC defensive linemen of the week, piling up 14 tackles, including three for a loss and one sack. His teammate Harold Landry enjoyed a particularly strong game as well, piling up three sacks. The combination of the two up front, paired with good games from the linebacker, resulted in Virginia Tech averaging under four yards a carry. The 109 rushing yards from Virginia Tech was the lowest an opponent has had all season against the Eagles.
Unfortunately for Boston College, the promising secondary was picked apart by Hokies quarterback Josh Jackson. Jackson threw for 322 yards, feasting on holes in the coverage. One throw to a slot receiver on a slant went 50-plus yards for a touchdown, as Jackson enjoyed one his best passing games of his career.
The lesson from the Hokies game is clear – when Landry and Allen are at their best, it’s a formidable task for an offensive line to deal with. If the secondary can hold up, the Eagles are showing flashes of a capable defense. Still, Louisville’s Heisman winner is better in all aspects of the game then Virginia Tech’s redshirt freshmen (and has more weapons), so it’ll be a steep task to contain him.
Louisville on defense
The Cardinals may rank 19th in the country in S&P+, but their defensive numbers are very underwhelming. They rank outside the top-50 in a variety of categories, including defensive S&P+ (56th), points allowed (74th), rushing success rate (78th), and passing success rate (109th). Simply put, they don’t any one thing well on defense.
This is a drastic difference from a year ago, when they finished 19th overall on defense, and boasted one of the best rushing defenses in the country. However, part of the struggles are due to the loss of preseason All-ACC pick Jaire Alexander, a talented cornerback who missed much of five games with knee problems. He returned to play the second half of the NC State loss, but is expected to have a bigger impact this week. A dangerous playmaker, Alexander brings a lot to the Cardinals system, and Petrino & Co. are glad to have him back.
Petrino told the Courier-Journal that he allows them to be more flexible with their coverage elsewhere in the secondary, so an Eagles team that is trying to get quarterback Anthony Brown going might run into trouble. Brown showed progress against Virginia Tech, completing five passes that went longer than 20 yards, but the return of Alexander makes a strong passing game less of a sure thing.
The Cardinals rushing defense has been hit-or-miss this season. They held lesser foes in North Carolina, Purdue, and Murray State to under 50 rushing yards. The other three games, however, two of which were losses – Louisville has allowed 589 yards on the ground. Almost 300 of those were conceded to Clemson, but the Cardinals have been exploited before. Boston College has been held to below 100 rushing yards just once this season, so expect them to once again lean heavily on the pair of AJ Dillon and Jon Hilliman.
Louisville’s Special Teams
The Cardinals boast one of the highest-ranked special team units in the country, as the combination of Creque and King have established themselves as consistently good. Creque has missed just one kick, an extra point, in 34 attempts. They rank third in FG value (per kick), and 19th in punt success rate. It’s a particularly strong combination, leading to a 12th-place ranking in special teams S&P+.
Creque’s consistency is something Eagles fans would love to have, as kicker Colton Lichtenberg has missed four field goals on the year. Punter Mike Knoll has been a bright spot, earning an ESPN midseason All-American nod after piling up 46 punts in six games and averaging 41 per punt. He’s also pinned opponents within the 20-yard-line 16 times on the year.
Louisville 30, Boston College 14
The Eagles offensive woes aren’t going away, but the defense has been strong lately. They stuck with Clemson for three quarters and held Virginia Tech to just 23 points a week ago, so an inspired effort could keep it close against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. Still, in typical fashion, the Eagles won’t ever be within striking distance, and it’ll feel similar to last weeks loss. Expect Jackson to pick up a touchdown or few on the ground as the well-documented struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks continue.