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Three Keys to Victory: Boston College vs. Louisville

Three essential objectives for Boston College to defeat Louisville

The Boston College Eagles enter the second half of the 2021 season with a 4-2 record. With two consecutive losses, the Eagles are through the most challenging part of their schedule. They now enter a short period of games against struggling opponents, providing BC with fortuitous opportunities to get their season back on track. This week, they head back out on the road to meet the Louisville Cardinals. The Cardinals are also coming off two consecutive losses; however, they came by a combined four points to Wake Forest and Virginia. Let’s get into how Boston College can take down Louisville.

Pound the Center

Frankly, Boston College could not be playing Louisville at a better time. In the last two games, the Eagles’ offense has sputtered and struggled to consistently move the ball and score points. Granted, it was against arguably the two best defenses in the conference, but it’s still concerning. Therefore, BC catches the Cardinals at a good point in the season. In terms of their total defense, Louisville ranks 115th in yards (449.3 YPG) and 90th in points (29.3 PPG). The Cardinals are abysmal in terms of their passing defense, allowing 298.8 yards per game (124th), the worst among Power Five teams. While they are better against the run, the difference is not that encouraging, as Louisville ranks 71st and allows 150.5 yards per game; they also rank 89th in terms of yards per carry allowed (4.47).

Even with the Cardinals struggling to limit the passing game, I think this is a golden opportunity for the Eagles to get their run game going again. BC had to abandon the run game earlier than they would have liked against NC State due to the game snowballing away from them. Nevertheless, in the second half, after racking up 100 yards in the first half alone, the Eagles only ran the ball six times and barely got positive yards. The Eagles’ offense flourished when they could run the ball and use it to set up the passing game.

Running the ball well is very important this week for the Eagles for multiple reasons. As previously mentioned, an effective rushing attack helps ensure that play-action passes are more effective. Additionally, it also allows BC to control the clock while keeping the offense on schedule. If BC can run the ball consistently and effectively, they can dictate the tempo and momentum of the game to the defense. Additionally, it keeps an explosive Louisville offense off the field and allows the BC defense to rest between drives. Furthermore, it should also help prevent turnovers; none of BC’s running backs have fumbled this season.

Some fans might also like this strategy simply because it takes the ball out of Dennis Grosel’s hands. Grosel has struggled the last two games, but I maintain the blame for the previous two losses does not lie solely with him. Against Clemson, the crowd noise led to too many penalties, which kept BC’s offense in poor down and distance situations; I will stipulate that the interceptions were mostly, if not all, his fault. Last week, Grosel’s receivers let him down several times by committing drops and not making contested catches. Regardless of these issues, a stronger running game helps Grosel by opening bigger windows for play-action passes while also putting him in easier game situations.

Regarding how BC should run the ball, I would recommend more interior runs, perhaps even more Man-Gap schemes. In general, the Louisville defense is undersized; none of their defensive linemen weight more than 300 pounds, their best player, Yasir Abdullah, is a 235 on-ball outside linebacker, and one of their inside off-ball linebackers, Jack Fagot, is basically a safety (6’0”, 195 lbs). The Cardinals run a bit of a funky 3-4 defense, but with BC’s powerful and experienced offensive line, Boston College should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage. Running the ball well, especially into the heart of Louisville’s defense, will help the Eagles play complementary football and help them get back in the win column.

Confuse Cunningham

Last year, Boston College did a good job of confusing and limiting Malik Cunningham as a passer. However, despite a late, game-clinching fumble, Cunningham dominated the Eagles on the ground, rushing for 134 yards on 12 carries, with 73 of those coming on designed runs and picking up nine first downs. So far this season, the Eagles have not faced a running threat at quarterback like Mobile. But I think they are well-equipped to handle him this year.

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A significant part of Boston College’s offseason was improving how this defense played against faster offenses and mobile quarterbacks. With Isaiah McDuffie, Max Richardson, and John Lamot moving on, BC made several moves to improve their linebackers’ athleticism. Their current starters, Isaiah Graham-Mobley and Kam Arnold move very fast from sideline to sideline; the addition of Jaiden Woodbey at safety should also help against mobile quarterbacks.

One of BC’s keys to victory against Colgate and Temple was keeping their mobile QBs in the pocket. Obviously, Malik Cunningham is a different beast than an FCS QB and a true freshman Group of Five QB. But the general point is still relevant. Against those teams, it was more important that BC’s defensive line maintain their pass rush lanes than actually get to the quarterback as quickly as possible. BC had to slow-play their pass rush and slowly shrink the pocket as opposed to quickly penetrating it. This leads to two critical outcomes. Firstly, it helps prevent Cunningham from breaking out of the pocket and using his legs. While BC has the second-level defenders to stop him, he’s still a slippery explosive player.

Secondly, it forces Cunningham to stand in the pocket and throw the football. He is not Lamar Jackson, but he’s probably still more dangerous as a runner. With that being said, he has been performing very well as a passer recently. Cunningham has not turned the ball over since the Cardinals’ Week 4 win against Florida State. He hasn’t even committed any turnover-worthy plays since that game, according to Pro Football Focus. 

But the longer Cunningham has to stand in the pocket, the more likely he is to panic and make a mistake. Additionally, if BC can slowly collapse the pocket around Cunningham as he reads the field, by the time he wants to escape the pocket and scramble, he might not have room. But if BC just tees off and tries to get to Cunningham quickly, he can evade pass rushers, get outside the pocket, and beat the defense with his arm or his legs.

This strategy should also help BC start generating turnovers again. Cunningham and Louisville’s receivers have been productive this season. But the receivers are very inexperienced. Conversely, BC’s secondary is full of veteran players; furthermore, Jeff Hafley and Tem Lukabu have been deploying more complex coverage schemes and rotations this year to confuse quarterbacks. We saw this take place against Temple and Missouri, as Temple’s QB was frequently forced to check down, throw it away, or scramble; against Missouri, while Connor Bazelak had a decent day, he had to wait for a long time to read the defense, and he threw two crucial interceptions. If BC can win the turnover battle, the result on the scoreboard should follow.

Don’t Blink

As evidenced by the previous game, there are times under Jeff Hafley where Boston College has let games get away from them. One can think of the Virginia Tech game last year or the NC State game this year. Even a game like Clemson from last year, where they had a big lead and let it slowly slip away. This week, against Louisville, Hafley must make sure his team is focused on the task at hand and willing to move on from mistakes and stay in the fight.

Coaching football is extremely difficult, and there are very few people who do it and even fewer who do it successfully. Even the most successful coaches have bad days or the occasional bad season. Therefore, some of my criticisms may ring hollow because I have never coached a football team and will probably never coach one, let alone at the college football level.

Nevertheless, I think Hafley might need to adjust his approach to coaching this team. When I say adjust, I mean that literally; there isn’t a need for a wholesale overhaul. But this week, with how the season is playing out, I think he might try pushing some different buttons. If you watch any of the hype videos from BC football, Hafley’s message stays pretty consistent on a week-to-week basis. I don’t want to say the message is getting stale because I don’t believe that. But Hafley has struggled on the road during his short coaching tenure, holding a 4-5 record as the away team. Therefore, it might be time to switch some things up at this crucial juncture in the season.

Inevitably, there will be a point in the game this week where the Eagles face adversity, a moment where momentum flips. At that moment, Hafley obviously has to tell his guys he believes in them. But maybe he also needs to get in their face a little bit, lighting a proverbial fire. In big moments, he has to tell them not to blink. This game could inform how the rest of the season will play out, and for the Eagles to be victorious, they need to fight through moments of adversity and take the fight back to the Cardinals.