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Boston College's Key to Victory: UMass

The Eagles face their first road test of the season against UMass on Saturday. Staff Writer Mitchell Wolfe gives his keys to defeating the Minutemen.

BC takes to the road for the first time this season. They head about two hours west to take on the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This will be the first time the Eagles take on the Minutemen in Amherst in nearly 40 years; the previous two matchups away from Chestnut Hill took place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. UMass will be looking for its first victory over BC since 1978 and its sixth overall win in the series. They are also still searching for their first winning season since joining the FBS in 2013.

Last week, the Minutemen fell to Pittsburgh by a score of 51-7. Frankly, the score could have been worse, as the Panthers committed several unforced errors, which UMass ultimately failed to capitalize upon. BC is coming off a similarly dominant win over FCS Colgate. Given the Minutemen’s recent struggles, the Eagles will most likely deploy a similarly vanilla gameplan that fans saw against Colgate. Regardless, let’s get into what objectives the Eagles need to meet to extend their winning streak against UMass

1. Fire Up the Pass Rush

Last week, the major key to victory was keeping Colgate’s QB, Grant Breneman, hemmed into the pocket. Breneman picked up some yards on designed quarterback runs throughout the game. But when he truly dropped back to pass and was forced to survey the defense, he struggled greatly. This was partially because BC’s defensive backs did an excellent job locking up Colgate’s receivers. But another facet of their success was how BC rushed the passer. The Eagles sacked Breneman twice and pressured him seven more times on 19 dropbacks. But part of the reason the BC defense was successful was the pressure and sacks they didn’t get.

Most of the time, pass rushers are told to beat the man across from them in any way possible. However, mobile quarterbacks can take advantage of this by breaking out of the pocket and throwing on the run or scrambling for yards. Tem Lukabu smartly deployed the defensive linemen in a scheme that focused on shrinking the pocket and forcing Breneman to make bad decisions. Instead of trying their hardest to get to the QB as quickly as possible, the defensive linemen slow-played their pass rush, electing to push the offensive linemen backward towards the quarterback and force him to get rid of the ball too quickly or just eat it and take the sack.

This week, don’t expect BC to deploy a similar scheme along the defensive line. Tyler Lytle, a transfer from Colorado, started for UMass last week against Pitt and figures to start again against BC. Unlike Breneman, Lytle is a more traditional pocket passer; he’s 6’5” and 225 lbs, but he’s statuesque in the pocket. UMass runs a wide-open, pass-heavy offense, so Lukabu will need to find ways for his defensive linemen to get pressure quickly. Unfortunately, it seems like the Eagles could be without Marcus Valdez, one of their defensive leaders, for another week due to a hand injury.

Regardless, Lukabu moved his pass rushers around the line and schemed up some confusing blitzes, especially on third down, that confused the Colgate offensive line and led to negative plays. Lytle played decently last week, but UMass’s receivers committed several crucial drops last week. BC can’t rely on that to happen again, and they’ll need to heat up the quarterback to stop the Minutemen’s offense. Keep an eye on players like Cam Horsley and Izaiah Henderson; UMass’ interior offensive linemen played very poorly last week against Pitt, so BC should be able to exploit that weakness.

2. Run It Back (Again)

Honestly, I’m probably going to sound like a broken record on this point. But this is another opponent that BC can use as a launching point for their running game. Against Colgate, the running backs were not overly productive. BC used Phil Jurkovec as a curveball asset to their running game, which was great for me. Unfortunately, it does not seem like Phil Jurkovec played baseball as he does not like to slide. Now, against premier ACC teams, when the game is on the line, I understand he’s going to need to put his body on the line to pick up key extra yards. But against Colgate? UMass? Hit the deck, buddy.

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Returning to the running backs, I’ve gone back and forth on their performance. Based solely on the box score, they did not perform overly well. BC’s three primary running backs, Travis Levy, Alec Sinkfield, and Patrick Garwo, carried the ball 19 times for 81 yards, collectively averaging 4.3 yards per carry. The offensive line performed well as run blockers but was not especially dominant like one would expect. 

Part of the reason behind the backs’ “lackluster” performances was their inability to get into a rhythm. Health was the primary objective for this game, so I understand cycling the backs in and out of the game. We should probably see more of that this week too. But now, with a full game under their belt, I’m hoping both the offensive line and running backs will come out firing this week and take some work off the plate of Phil Jurkovec and the receivers. Pitt ran the ball against UMass with a deep stable of running backs; there’s no reason to think BC can’t do the same this week.

3. What’s the Kicker? Who’s the Kicker? Why is the Kicker?

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BC fans were surprised to see Danny Longman take the field as the placekicker after the Eagles’ first touchdown. After the game, news broke that Aaron Boumerhi, the kicker for the last two seasons who finally stabilized the position after years of chaos and strife, suffered a hip injury and would miss the rest of the season. Bourmerhi suffered a similar injury at Temple, which precipitated his transfer to BC. 

As Boumerhi would have been entering his sixth season in college football this year, it’s likely that he will not see the field again for the Eagles, as he may want to move on with his life and away from football. Boumerhi was a solid, reliable kicker for BC. Still, he lacked the strong leg to consistently make longer kicks and contribute on kickoffs, indicating he will most likely not play professionally.

While we wish Aaron the best in all his future endeavors, BC fans’ eyes now turn to the depth chart at kicker. Fans undoubtedly remember the disappointment in the post-Nate Freese era. Luckily, the Eagles have plenty of options at placekicker to replace Boumerhi. Longman should keep his job as the kickoff specialist; he still managed to kick one out of bounds this past week, something he severely struggled with in seasons past. He made a field goal but also missed an extra point.

If Hafley elects to go in a different direction, the presumptive favorite to take over the place-kicking duties is true freshman Connor Lytton. Lytton enrolled early this spring and was one of 247’s top-rated kickers in his class. Additionally, according to Kohl’s Professional Kicking Camps, he was a five-star recruit, a national authority on high school kickers. 

Another option could be folk-hero, John Tessitore. Fans will, of course, remember how he pulled off a fake snap on a field goal attempt to draw Clemson offsides, leading to a touchdown the next play. Unfortunately, Tessitore has not attempted a kick since 2018, when he did not attempt any field goals and missed four extra points. Given his experience and savvy, Tessitore might be best suited to remain at the holder position. 

The other option is Stephen Ruiz, the Eagles’ onside kick specialist from 2020. Ruiz has also never attempted a field goal, but he’s also never even attempted an extra point at the collegiate level. He’s another player that may be locked into a defined role. Against UMass, we could see multiple players take the field at placekicker. At the end of the game, however, I’d expect Lytton to be the starter at placekicker moving forward.