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Can Boston College Pass Now?

By Jim Johnson
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Anthony Brown's 626 yards are the most since Chase Rettig, in 2012, to start a season, and his nine touchdowns are more than any Eagle QB this century over the first three games of a season.

What if Boston College could throw the ball?

Let’s look back at the past few years of Steve Addazio’s tenure and just imagine what could have been.

In his third year at Boston College, then with a couple of full recruiting cycles under his belt, he actually suffered through his worst season as a head coach, at least through the prism of wins and losses, going 3-9 and winless in conference play. Granted, the Eagles had 72% win expectancies in both a 9-7 loss at Duke and a 3-0 (wait, what?) loss to Wake Forest. They also had an 83% win expectancy in a 20-17 defeat at Syracuse.

It’s almost inexplicable, in hindsight, for that to have been the case given that the defense that season ranked 3rd in the nation in S&P+ and 4th in points per drive allowed. It legitimately had a case as the best in the nation, alongside the likes of Alabama and Ohio State, but the offense (literally against Wake Forest) could not score.

In fairness, it wasn’t just the passing game that was in 2015, although it might have been the worst in the nation, ranking second to last in S&P+ and last in success rate. The run game, too, struggled, finishing 111th in S&P+ behind a truly porous offensive line. However, there is an argument that the rushing attack suffered in large part due to the lack of any semblance of a complementary aerial threat.

Both primary ball carriers averaged an extra six yards per opportunity upon reaching the second level and the team ultimately ranked 33rd in equivalent points per successful rush. The problem was that they only managed a successful rush about a third of the time, which ranked 124th in college football. That’s what happens when opposing defenses can put like 25 guys in the box without fear of repercussions.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the run game would have at least been marginally better with even bad (as opposed to nonexistent) quarterback play, as is probably the case. Is that a bowl team? Almost certainly. A brutal schedule could have been prohibitive very far beyond that, but still. An extra game in December is a whole lot better than an O-fer in the ACC.

It’s a real shame how that defense, one of the better groups in recent memory, was wasted.

2016 saw the previous year’s win total more than double after capping off a 6-6 regular season, and a 2-6 conference slate, with a victory over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. The offense was still a total mess, though, ending up 124th out of 128 teams in S&P+, again, heavily on account of an abysmal passing game that ranked 11th in S&P+ with Patrick Towles completing just a hair over half of his attempts.

Frankly, the rise in wins was more a result of a swing in fortune than anything else. Just as the Eagles had lost three games in which they had pretty substantially positive win expectancies in 2015, the 2016 team won three games with a negative win expectancy -- at NC State, at Wake Forest, and against Maryland in a bowl game that, if not for some good luck, they wouldn’t have even been eligible for.

The offensive struggles mirrored those from the year prior. Behind nightmarish offensive line play, without any support from the passing game, Jon Hilliman and company did what they could with very little, ranking 32nd in equivalent points per successful rush, but only garnering those opportunities 32.7% of the time (127th).

Meanwhile, another solid Addazio defense rolled out a top 25 S&P+ campaign led by Harold Landry and a defensive line that ranked first in the nation in tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles per play.

The tides started to shift last season, with the emergence of then-freshman A.J. Dillon as one of the best ball carriers in the game.

The rushing offense leapt up to 25th in S&P+ behind a finally stable offensive line. The defense was still in the top third of the national S&P+, albeit not as elite as the two years before. Yet, even with everything else on the uptick, the passing game started, stopped, sputtered, and stalled its way to another ranking in the 100’s, even behind a unit that ranked 16th in adjusted sack rate allowed..

Granted, at least there was some improvement, overall. Whereas in 2016, the team was arguably not much better than it was when it went 3-9 in 2015, the 2017 group overcame a 1-3 start to win six of its final nine contests, and, this time, deservedly so. In spite of an identical win total to four of Addazio’s, at that point, five BC teams, it was almost assuredly his most complete squad.

Over the course of the proceeding offseason, with all five starters returning on the offensive line, Dillon’s name rightfully being mentioned in dark horse Heisman conversations, and a defense that has well earned the benefit of anyone’s potential doubts, Boston College became a sexy pick as the primary threat to Clemson in the Atlantic, throughout certain circles.

Still, it just felt disingenuous to hop on that bandwagon without any tangible reasons to expect improvement in the passing game. Why, with a seemingly unsettled quarterback position, otherwise pretty similar offensive personnel, and a defense that just lost one of the best college football players in recent memory -- Harold Landry -- would this team’s ceiling be any higher than it had been?

Well… about that.

Apparently Anthony Brown made a leap. He entered the Wake Forest game averaging 14 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and a 248.9 passer rating. Even so, that was against UMass and Holy Cross. Even his backups were putting up silly numbers during the first two weeks of the season. Regardless, there was hope, if nothing else.

Going into Thursday night’s matchup, Boston College ranked 12th in the nation in marginal passing explosiveness (based on down, distance and field position, how a team performed relative to the expected outcome based on national averages) and fifth in marginal passing efficiency. Cupcakes or not, that’s a far cry from anything BC fans had seen in quite a while.

Nevertheless, Wake Forest would be Brown’s first true test. This was a defense that ranked 17th in passing IsoPPP allowed last year, and returned perhaps the ACC’s best cornerback, in Essang Bassey.

Suffice it to say, he dominated.

He completed 16 of his 25 attempts for 304 yards and five touchdowns -- the most by a Boston College signal caller since Matt Ryan did it in 2007.

In fact, his 626 yards are the most since Chase Rettig, in 2012, to start a season, and his nine touchdowns are more than any Eagle QB this century over the first three games of a season.

With help from a run-of-the-mill 33 carry, 185 yard, one touchdown day from Dillon, a star-making outing from receiver Jeff Smith, the continuing emergence of Tommy Sweeney as one of the best tight ends in the country, and an offensive line that allowed just one sack, Brown looked like the answer to Steve Addazio’s prayers.

There’s some stuff to clean up as far as the run defense goes, but he pass defense looked cohesive, getting after the passer for four sacks and six hurries, to accompany a pair on interceptions. Although, Wake Forest has an extremely underrated offensive line that is about as good as any in the ACC, and, realistically, two of Wake’s scores came either directly or indirectly from special teams mishaps.

Who cares, though? Boston College is scoring points. Anthony Brown is completing more than half of his passes. A.J. Dillon is a superhero. The offensive line is eating other abnormally large humans alive. Play action is devastating. They’re converting third and longs at a top 20 rate. Sometimes, opposing defenses actually have less than a million people in the box. This is truly heady stuff.

It doesn’t feel right to say this, but, perhaps, with a couple of big non-conference games coming up, before the ACC slate gets fully engaged, it will be the offense that carries the defense while that group tries to establish a new leadership core.

It’s about time those guys made up for 2015.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP