Game Preview: Virginia Tech Faces Offensively Challenged Boston College

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Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech running back Raheem Blackshear escapes a tackle against Boston College in 2020. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Boston College: Friday, November 5, 7:30, ESPN2
  • Virginia Tech vs. Boston College Betting Line: VT -3
  • Virginia Tech-Boston College roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • Boston weather: Click here

This was set up to be a promising season for Boston College football.  The Eagles returned a solid defense, second-year head coach Jeff Hafley looked like a good hire, and BC returned one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC in Phil Jurkovec.  However, things turned south in a hurry when an injury to Jurkovec required hand surgery, and the offense has flopped since the team got into ACC play.

Boston College started the season 4-0 with victories over Colgate, UMass, Temple and Missouri.  However, the Eagles have floundered in four consecutive ACC contests, they sit 4-4 overall and 0-4 in league play, and their offense hasn’t scored more than 14 points since September 25.  The Eagles badly need a win, but with the way their offense has been performing, that may be difficult to come by.

Meanwhile, Tech’s offense has made strides recently, setting new season-bests in total yardage in back-to-back weeks.  The Hokie running game has especially come around behind Malachi Thomas and Raheem Blackshear, and they’ll face a BC defense that hasn’t been very good at stopping the run in recent weeks.

However, the most important facet of this matchup will be the Boston College offense against the Virginia Tech defense.  If the VT defense does what every other ACC defense has managed to do, the Eagles aren’t going to be able to score enough points to win on Friday.

Dennis Grosel
Dennis Grosel lit up UVA last season, but hasn’t done much since. (ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS)

The Boston College Passing Game Without Jurkovec

Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec completed 61% of his passes for 2,558 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions a year ago.  He was set up to have a very good 2021 until he suffered a hand injury in the second game of the season against UMass.  Insert Dennis Grosel (6-1, 221, r-Sr.), and the BC offense has rapidly declined.

Grosel is an experienced backup who threw for 520 yards at UVA last season when Jurkovec was hurt.  However, knowing what we now know about the Wahoo defense, it’s pretty clear that the Grosel we’re seeing this year is a lot closer to the real Grosel than the one we saw in one appearance a year ago.

The real Grosel has completed 57.4% of his passes for 1,193 yards, with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.  He’s averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt.  Those numbers get even worse when you dig into his ACC-only stats…

  • Clemson: 23-of-40, 311 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
  • NCSU: 21-of-39, 194 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • Louisville: 17-of-32, 141 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
  • Syracuse: 9-of-17, 93 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs (benched)
  • Total: 70-of-128 (54.7%), 739 yards, 5.77 ypa, 2 TDs, 5 INTs

Just look at that TD-INT rate, and the yards per attempt.  The NCAA stats list Grosel as No. 111 out of 122 ranked QBs in yards per attempt, and of course they’re using the 6.3 ypa he has average overall. He’s also No. 111 out of 122 in passing efficiency.

Last week Jeff Hafley finally pulled the plug and put in true freshman Emmett Morehead (6-5, 229), and the results weren’t any better, as Morehead went 6-of-15 (40%) for 87 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt. 

It doesn’t appear that Hafley has a good option either way.  What he should probably do is not throw the ball nearly as much.  BC has thrown the ball 32+ times in each game without Jurkovec.  Some of that is dictated by the score of the game, but even in their tight game with Clemson, the Eagles were still throwing the ball all over the field (40 attempts).  They should probably focus on running the ball against Virginia Tech, only throwing when needed, and attempting to make it a very low-scoring game that is decided in the fourth quarter.

The Boston College Running Backs

The problem with the run-heavy strategy is that the Eagles aren’t particularly good at that element of football either, though they are certainly better at running than passing, and against the Virginia Tech defense, a run-heavy strategy would seem to be the wisest move.

Against Power 5 competition this year, Boston College is averaging 147.3 yards per game, which ranks No. 72 in the country.  Their 3.79 yards per carry against P5 opponents ranks No. 85 nationally.  The Eagles don’t have a dominant running back, though their starter is good.

Patrick Garwo (5-8, 214, So.) is that starter, and he’s having a solid season.  He has 116 carries for 689 yards, a 5.9 yards per carry average, and he has also scored five rushing touchdowns.  With only one catch on the season however, he hasn’t been a big threat in the passing game.

The Eagles also have two other options in the running game:

  • Alec Sinkfield (5-9, 205, r-Sr.): 59 carries, 242 yards, 4.1 ypc, 2 TDs
  • Travis Levy (5-11, 203, r-Sr.): 50 carries, 163 yards, 3.3 ypc, 4 TDs

Levy is a physical player who can score touchdowns on the goal line, and with 14 catches on the year, he is the best receiver out of this group.  Like Garwo, Sinkfield is a one-dimensional back with no catches this season.

A Wasted Offensive Line

The Boston College offense ranks No. 1 in the ACC in run blocking grade by Pro Football Focus, and No. 6 in pass blocking.  Every starting offensive lineman has an overall grade of at least 74.2, a pass blocking grade of at least 72.8, and a run blocking grade of at least 68.4.  This is a very good and very experienced unit, but they are let down by mediocre talent at running back, a bad quarterback, and a wide receiver corps with only one real threat (more on him later).

Here’s how the Eagles line up from left to right…

  • LT Tyler Vrabel (6-5, 307, r-Jr.)
  • LG Zion Johnson (6-3, 316, r-Sr.)
  • C Alec Lindstrom (6-3, 298, r-Sr.)
  • RG Christian Mahogany (6-3, 318, r-So.)
  • RT Ben Petrula (6-5, 314, r-Sr.)

That’s three experienced seniors as well as a redshirt junior.  Lindstrom’s father played in the NFL for three seasons, while Vrabel is the son of the more famous Mike.  It’s not uncommon for former NFL players to send their sons to play offensive line at Boston College.

Zay Flowers: The Most Underappreciated Player in the ACC?

Wide receiver Zay Flowers (5-11, 177, Jr.) is an excellent player, though he’s not having the junior season he hoped for thanks to quarterback issues.

Flowers got off to a hot start in his career by burning Jo’Vonn Quillen for a touchdown early in Virginia Tech’s season-opening loss to Boston College in 2019.  He ended up with 22 catches for 341 yards and five touchdowns last year, but he really blew up as a sophomore in 2020 when he caught 56 passes for 892 yards and nine touchdowns.

Flowers is a big-time deep threat, but his numbers are down a bit this year with 35 receptions for 511 yards and two touchdowns.  If Tech can manage to keep a lid on Flowers, it will be very difficult for the Eagles to mount much of a passing threat.

Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech running back Raheem Blackshear is hoping for more running room against BC. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

The Boston College Defense

The Eagles are hanging in there on the defensive side of the ball, though their lack of offense makes life difficult for defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu.

Here’s how the Eagles rank in some key defensive metrics, and I’ll include both traditional and advanced stats…

  • Rushing defense: No. 90
  • Yards per rush: No. 103
  • Passing defense: No. 10
  • Pass efficiency defense: No. 29
  • Total defense: No. 40
  • Scoring defense: No. 32
  • FEI Defense: No. 74
  • F+ Defense: No. 70

Boston College has been very good against the pass, but poor against the run.  The Eagles rank No. 40 in total defense, which is solid, but the defensive efficiency ratings don’t like their defense as much, simply because their run defense hasn’t been good. 

This week, they’ll face a Virginia Tech running game that has put up the following numbers over the last two games:

  • Syracuse: 44 carries, 260 yards, 5.9 ypc
  • Georgia Tech: 53 carries, 237 yards, 4.5 ypc
  • Totals: 97 carries, 497 yards, 5.1 ypc

To dive deeper into the Boston College run defense, here’s what they’ve allowed over the last four weeks:

  • Clemson: 40 carries, 231 yards, 5.8 ypc
  • NCSU: 34 carries, 130 yards, 3.8 ypc
  • Louisville: 47 carries, 331 yards, 7.0 ypc
  • Syracuse: 47 carries, 293 yards, 6.2 ypc
  • Totals: 168 carries, 985 yards, 5.86 ypc

This would seem to be a matchup that favors Virginia Tech. 

BC’s defensive linemen have put up good PFF grades against the run. However, some players on the back end have let them down, and their depth at defensive tackle isn’t great.  Check out the following PFF run defense grades:

  • LB Kam Arnold (6-0, 228, So.): 47.1
  • CB Elijah Jones (6-2, 176, r-Jr.): 38.2
  • LB Bryce Steele (6-1, 215, Fr.): 43.3
  • DT Izaiah Henderson (6-2, 280, r-So.): 45.0
  • LB Isaiah Graham-Mobley (6-1, 230, r-Sr.): 51.0
  • S Jason Maitre (5-10, 188, r-Jr.): 55.3

That’s too many guys with a poor run defense grade for the season, and as we can see from the stats from the last four games, things don’t seem to be trending in the right direction for the Eagles.

The Eagles also aren’t a team that makes very many plays in the backfield.  They average just 3.86 tackles for loss per game against FBS teams, which ranks No. 124.  They average 1.29 sacks per game against FBS competition, which ranks No. 117.  This is a game where the Hokies should be able to stay in manageable down and distance situations.

Nickelback Josh DeBerry (5-11, 176, Jr.) is a bit smaller than your average player at his position, but he has been BC’s best and most consistent player against the run and the pass.  He was an Honorable Mention All-ACC player a year ago.  Cornerback Elijah Jones has been very good against the pass, though as noted above, he has struggled in the running game.

Defensive ends Brandon Barlow (6-4, 258, r-Sr.), Marcus Valdez (6-0, 259, r-Sr.) and Shitah Sillah (6-4, 253, Jr.) have all been very good players for the Eagles this season. For the most part, the problems against the run have come from the players behind them, which is similar to the Georgia Tech defense that the Hokies faced last weekend.

Boston College Special Teams

Travis Levy is a dangerous kickoff return man for Boston College.  He’s experienced, and he has a 96-yard return for a touchdown this year on his resume, albeit against a very bad UMass team.  Levy and Jaelen Gill (5-11, 187, r-Jr.) have split time on punt return duties, though neither one of them has looked consistently dangerous.  It’s worth noting that the Eagles have allowed 13.1 yards per punt return with a long of 64, so there could be an opportunity for Tayvion Robinson in the return game.

BC has used two field goal kickers this season.  Connor Lytton (6-0, 200, Fr., from Radford High School) is 6-of-7 with a long of 49 yards, while Danny Longman (6-1, 193, Sr.) has made both of his kicks, though both were from inside 30 yards.

The Eagles have a very good punter in Grant Carlson (5-11, 190, r-Sr.), who is averaging 46 yards per punt with a long of 72.  16 of his 36 punts have gone 50+ yards, and only 12 of them have been returned.

Special teams seems like an even matchup this week.  The Hokies rank No. 24 in the FEI special teams efficiency rankings, while the Eagles are just behind them at No. 27.

Jeff Hafley
Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley seems married to a pass-first offense, even when his quarterbacks can’t pass. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

Final Thoughts

I think Boston College should line up behind that good, experienced offensive line with the No. 1 run blocking grade in the ACC and run the football 75% of the time on Friday night, but that doesn’t seem to be how Jeff Hafley is wired.  The fact that they keep throwing a lot despite having quarterbacks who aren’t very good at passing seems to indicate that Hafley is married to that type of offense, and that’s the hill that he’s going to die on no matter what.  Some coaches are just like that.

Unless he has a change of heart this week, I think his strategy plays into the hands of a Virginia Tech team that is strong against the pass but somewhat weak against the run.  This year the ACC seems to be a bunch of 50-50 games that are decided by matchups on a week-by-week basis, and this week the matchups seem to favor the Hokies.

I’ve got Tech improving to 5-4 this Friday, and then to 6-4 the next week against Duke.  If Brennan Armstrong can’t play the last week of the season, we’re probably looking at seven wins, though Tech might win that game anyway considering how atrociously bad the UVA defense is.  Miami is playing better football these days, though you never exactly know when the Canes are going to show up and when they aren’t.

I think Tech’s most likely season record right now is 7-5, but that will be tougher to accomplish with a loss to BC on Friday night.  However, the Eagle offense is so limited that it’s tough to see that happening.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Boston College 13

Will Stewart’s Take: There’s an old joke that I’ll never pick Boston College to beat Virginia Tech, and for many years I stuck to that, but I’m disappointed to see that I picked the Eagles to beat the Hokies back in 2018. I was right (the game recap is a depressing read), but that doesn’t make it any easier to know that I went outside my lane and broke my streak.

Since then, I have gone back to picking the Hokies in every game against BC, and I’ll do it again today. Virginia Tech is 11-7 in ACC play against Boston College, dating back to 2005 and including a couple ACC Championship Game wins for the Hokies. VT has lost two out of the last three to BC, but in the most recent game, the Hokies notched their biggest win of 2020, beating the Eagles 40-14. That was the high-water mark of last year, putting the Hokies at 3-1. It all came crashing down after that, as Virginia Tech went 2-5 down the stretch.

That little history lesson has nothing to do with Friday night’s game, of course. This is perhaps the easiest pick of the season, next to the Duke game. ESPN’s Matchup Predictor gives Virginia Tech a 53.8% chance of winning, but I think their computers haven’t caught up to the trends yet. Namely, the Virginia Tech offense is trending up and the Boston College offense is trending down. Or perhaps they’re giving Boston College some serious home-field advantage. The Hokies are 4-4 in Chestnut Hill since 2005.

Boston College is struggling to put up points and yards, having scored just 40 points in their last four games, and being held under 300 yards of offense in three straight games. The Eagles have played the ACC’s three best defenses in the last four games — Clemson, NC State, and Syracuse — but that also includes a game against a middling Louisville defense (10th in the ACC) in which BC had just 266 yards and 14 points.

Meanwhile, the Hokie offense has come to life in the last couple of games, averaging 464 yards and 31 points. Before you pooh-pooh that, note that Virginia Tech had 437 yards and 34 points (the other two game on a PAT return) against a Syracuse defense that only gives up 316.7 yards (No. 1 in the ACC) and 22.6 points per game.

I’m betting on the trends to continue in Chestnut Hill.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Boston College 17

David Cunningham’s Take: This is a matchup that heavily favors Virginia Tech, particularly since the Hokies have played at a high level over the past two weeks.

Like Chris mentioned, Boston College’s offensive line is very talented, but the Eagles lack weapons at the skill positions. They’ll be up against a Tech defense that hasn’t been great against the run (though was okay last week) and has been solid against the pass. The lone time Virginia Tech has been completely shredded this season on the defensive side of the ball was against Kenny Pickett and Pitt.

If the Hokies can continue to improve on offense, which starts with a complementary and balanced attack like I wrote about on Tuesday, it should be all Virginia Tech in Chestnut Hill. After last week’s win at Georgia Tech, I’m not exactly concerned about VT playing on the road, either, though Boston in November doesn’t sound like comfortable weather.

I think the Hokies run the ball effectively and go ahead early, giving themselves a buffer and some breathing room defensively for the rest of the game, and win by two scores. 

David’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 26, Boston College 13

 


What's your prediction for the 2021 Virginia Tech-Boston College game?

  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (47%, 551 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (40%, 467 Votes)
  • BC Wins by 1-10 (11%, 124 Votes)
  • BC Wins by 11+ (2%, 24 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,166

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Last Game’s Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech Prediction Poll Results

Game Result: Virginia Tech 26, Georgia Tech 17

What's your prediction for the 2021 Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game?

  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (38%, 459 Votes)
  • GT Wins by 1-10 (37%, 446 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (16%, 195 Votes)
  • GT Wins by 11+ (10%, 117 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,217

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2021 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - TSL Staff
Game
Chris (5-6)
Will (6-5)
David (7-4)
Result
UNC
MTSU
@WVU
Richmond
Notre Dame
Pittsburgh
Syracuse
@Georgia Tech
@Boston College
Duke
@Miami
@UVA
TBD
2021 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - Fans (7-4)
Game
Fan Poll
Result
Score
UNC
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 17, UNC 10
MTSU
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 35, MTSU 14
@WVU
Hokies Win by 1-10
WVU 27, Hokies 21
Richmond
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 21, Richmond 10
Notre Dame
Hokies Win by 1-10
Notre Dame 32, Hokies 29
Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Wins by 11+
Pittsburgh 28, Hokies 7
Syracuse
Syracuse Wins by 1-10
Syracuse 41, Hokies 36
@Georgia Tech
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 26, GT 17
@Boston College
Hokies Win by 1-10
Boston College 17, Hokies 3
Duke
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 48, Duke 17
@Miami
Hokies Win by 1-10
Miami 38, Hokies 26
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8 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. David doesn’t consider what Cuse did to be a shredding of the VT offense? I do. Much worse than Pitt, frankly.

  2. I just don’t have a good feeling about this one. I think we lose another close game, giving up the lead in the final minutes.

    I’d love to be proven wrong! Go Hokies.

  3. I think it may well be 8-4.
    I think corn and jafar go at the end of the season
    I think that Fu will then make a good couple hires.
    I think we turn the corner.
    Jhams defense will be better as his type of player comes in.

    If we do lose to uva or any other couple teams, then Fuente goes and it is a complete rebuild.

    1. Would love to have a good enough season to keep Fuente another year. Most key offensive players return. We are so close to having a great year. Maybe next year we don’t blow the games in the 4th quarter and have a 8/9 win season and a decent bowl game. I hate head coaching changes.

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