November 16, 2007

As big as it gets

#17 Boston College (8-2) vs. #15 Clemson (8-2) (Saturday, 7:45 PM; ESPN2)

It's probably the biggest game in a couple of decades for the Boston College Eagles. Gone is the hype surrounding a national championship run; instead replaced by an opportunity to represent the Atlantic in the ACC Championship Game. It's also likely to be the biggest game in Tommy Bowden's career at Clemson. A victory for the Tigers and it may be the beginning of a multi-year BCS run for the South Carolina program; a loss and there may be a Head Coach hanging in Death Valley. Both schools have a spotty recent track record in games with this level of importance. Somebody's taking the next step this season.

Fast Facts: The Tigers are 8-2 and riding a four game win streak whereby they have outscored opponents 191-51. Bowden's club beat up Wake Forest last weekend 44-10. Cullen Harper threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns and C.J. Spiller returned a kick for 90 yards. BC is coming off a 42-35 loss to Maryland, Matt Ryan threw for 421 yards and 3 touchdowns but also had two costly interceptions. Ryan Purvis had 10 receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
The last two games between these two clubs has gone to overtime, with BC pulling out the victory in both games.
The Vegas Line has the Tigers at 7.5 point favorites.

Players to Watch

Clemson: Cullen Harper. One could argue that Harper has been the best quarterback in the ACC this year (although we'd strongly disagree). Harper has thrown for 2,432 yards and 26 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions. Harper has completed 66.5% of his passes this season. James Davis. Davis has rushed for 860 yards and 8 touchdowns this year; in Davis' last three ACC games, he has rushed for an average of 103 yards. His counterpart C.J. Spiller has rushed for 516 yards and two touchdowns this season. However, Spiller also has 27 receptions for 257 yards. Aaron Kelly. Harper's premier receiver has caught 67 passes for 841 yards this season. Kelly has also scored 11 touchdowns. His best game came in a loss to Virginia Tech where he Kelly had 11 receptions for 174 yards and a touchdown. Barry Richardson. Richardson should be a first or second round draft pick in April and has anchored a solid Clemson offensive line. He remains questionable with an injury for this weekend's game.

Boston College: Prior to the season, the Eagles 5 best defensive players were as follows: B.J. Raji, Brian Toal, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DeJuan Tribble, and Jamie Silva. They most assuredly will be without three of the stars, while the fourth, Dunbar, will be playing on a balky ankle. It's no surprise that the defense has suffered as of late. Jo-Lonn Dunbar. It was widely apparent how much the defense missed this guy last week. With his status being upgraded to probable on Thursday it looks like he and Tyronne Pruitt will both give it a go on Saturday night. We wonder how effective these two will be. It's a safe bet that Bowden will challenge Dunbar in the beginning of the game to test his mobility. The Secondary. The defense was torched by a mediocre quarterback last weekend. Maryland's Chris Turner threw for 337 yards, completed 78% of his passes, and hooked up for 3 touchdowns. With DeJuan Tribble out of the game this unit will be challenged. Ryan Purvis. Purvis has become Matt Ryan's most reliable receiver over the past few weeks. He had a career day last week and will need to again step up and expose the middle of the field for BC to have a chance.

What the Eagles need to win: Consistent pressure on Cullen Harper. Heading into the season, getting pressure on the quarterback was without a doubt the biggest question mark facing this BC defense. The loss of B.J. Raji and Brian Toal coupled with the average speed and athletic ability off the edge, left many with more than a little hesitation. Early in the season, however, BC managed to ease these fears as the defense managed to generate relatively consistent pressure, allowing the ball hawking secondary to capitalize on ill-advised throws downfield. Yet, in the last 3 weeks, BC's pass rush has plummeted from solid to anemic and the overall defensive performance has suffered. Kevin Akins is picked up every time he comes off the edge. Alex Albright and Nick Larkin have been stymied with their pass rush. In BC's modified 3-4, Mark Herzlich has brought the most consistent pressure, but every time the blitz appears to arrive a hair too late. In Clemson's two losses this season, they gave up a combined 10 sacks (1/2 of their season total); thus, it would suggest that if BC can generate a pass rush, they should significantly increase their chances of winning. In order for BC to win another game on their schedule, Coach Spaziani must figure out a way to generate a pass rush.

The lack of speed in the BC secondary is masked by their schemes to keep everything in front of them. As a result, teams like FSU exploited the soft coverage and non-existent pass rush with slants, posts and crossing routes. Maryland, sensing that BC would jump these routes, mixed in deep attempts downfield with their extra time in the pocket, catching the Eagles secondary off guard and resulting in further exploitation of the underneath zones. The Clemson offense is led by the very accurate Cullen Harper. Harper prefers the short passing game, which allows his speedy and athletic receivers to make plays after the catch. Since it's unlikely you'll see the BC secondary attempt to jam the Clemson receivers at the line, getting pressure on Harper before he settles into his 5-step drop will be paramount to contain the Clemson offense. Anything less, and it will be another long day for the Eagles defense.

What cannot happen for the Eagles to win: A Negative Turnover Margin. In the last 2 games, the Eagles have lost the turnover battle 6-0. Both of those contests were 1 possession games with only a handful of minutes left on the clock-both winnable conditions. The two turnovers last week led to 14 Maryland points, while FSU returned a Ryan pick for a TD and also prevented an imminent Eagles score by intercepting Ryan at the two yard line. Obviously, those turnovers drastically altered the course of the game, and thus, the Eagles season. As depressing as the losses have been, this team remains about 2 plays from still being undefeated (dropped Jarvis TD; Ryan int. at the FSU 2).

In order for BC to pull the upset this weekend, they're going to need to do what FSU and Maryland have done the last two weeks: win the turnover battle. They cannot afford to give the dynamic Clemson offense a short field or more opportunities to put points on the board. The crowd will be just as frenzied as Lane Stadium, so turnovers could snowball into a blowout, particularly if they occur early in the contest. Conversely, if BC can win the turnover battle, or at worst stay even with Clemson, the Eagles' explosive offense is good enough to win the game by themselves. Despite turning the ball over 6 times in the last two weeks, the Eagles only punted the ball 7 times in 24 possessions. Thus, assuming the Eagles do not turn the ball over and they punt the ball on only 30-40% of their possessions (as they have in their previous two games), it wouldn't be unrealistic to expect 30 points out of this offense. Sprinkle in a couple of Clemson turnovers and BC has a very realistic shot to win this ball game.

What the Tigers need to win: Offensive Execution. The most consistent attribute in all of the Clemson victories this season has been their near flawless offensive execution. Perhaps more telling has been the utter lack of offensive efficiency in all of their losses. Against Georgia Tech, they gave up 6 sacks, had two turnovers, and suffered from 9 dropped passes and a multitude of erratic Harper passes. It was even worse against Virginia Tech: 4 sacks and 3 turnovers by Harper, including one pick-6. BC's explosive offense requires that the Tigers not only move the ball, but also generate a lot of points. If last week's game against Wake Forest is indicative of future performance, the Tigers have every bit, if not more, of an explosive offense as the Eagles.

While much has been made in recent weeks of Cullen Harper's phenomenal season to date, he does not have the pedigree or big game experience that Matt Ryan holds. He has put up big numbers against most of the opponents on their schedule, particularly the weaker teams, but suffered against the better defenses (i.e the Techs of the ACC). Yet, unlike Matt Ryan, Clemson's success isn't necessarily dependant upon Cullen Harper, as they have arguably the #1 running back tandem in the country in Spiller and Davis. While the Tigers may be going up against the nation's #2 rush defense, the Eagles have looked vulnerable in the last two weeks, particularly if Dunbar and Pruitt are unable to play. If the Tigers can run the ball with decent success and Harper is able to move the offense through the air, the Tigers balance should outpace the Eagles' attack.

What cannot happen for the Tigers to win: Fall behind early. When the Hokies visited Death Valley earlier this year, they put up 17 points in the first quarter, silencing the raucous crowd and creating a comfortable margin that would prove to be too much for the Tigers to overcome. That was against a relatively anemic Hokie offense (at least at that time of the season). If the Tigers fall behind by a similar score to the Matt Ryan-led Eagles, it may be near impossible for them to make any sort of comeback, as the Eagles would be a very difficult team to catch from behind. A close game, or an early Clemson lead, would further incite what is expected to be a deafening crowd as well as extinguish much of the Eagles hopes for an upset.

Outlook: Whether BC had won last weekend or not, this game would still be for all the marbles. So as disheartening as that loss was, it didn't change the dynamics of the ACC race. As it stands, we appear to have two teams moving in the opposite directions: one, relatively healthy, riding a four game blowout streak and the other, limping into the contest with two straight losses and a banged up defense. But College Football doesn't always follow trends; in fact, if this year is any indication, bet the farm on the underdog. On paper, there's very little reason to think BC will be able to upset the Tigers in Death Valley, but similar research led to the same conclusion for BC against Maryland and FSU. So much for projections.
This game will probably go in one of two directions. Either Clemson will get a lead very early on and their superior talent and momentum will carry them throughout the contest to one of those "win by ten, but seemed like twenty" victories; or, BC will win a heart stopper for the decades as their seniors, particularly Matt Ryan, finish what they started some four or five years ago. I see very little likelihood of something in between.

In those hair-raising moments that are flagged in our hearts and ESPN Classic reels, turnovers and execution typically tell the story on paper, but something else rules our memories. Something like a senior quarterback coming full circle to where it all began. While the game meant far less at the time, I remember the exact moment that Matt Ryan stepped on the field in Death Valley two years ago-the hit, the comeback, and the OT victory are all etched in my memory, as I'm sure they are all in yours. Since that moment, he's grown into the best quarterback in the country, casting a long shadow over whomever will eventually replace him in Chestnut Hill. For some reason, no matter how much my brain tells me that Clemson will win this game, I can't shake the feeling in my gut that Matt Ryan will prevail over all on Saturday night. Call it stupidity; call it ignorance; call it a fan's blind faith. I'm going with my gut…err Matt Ice's.

BC: 38
Clemson: 35

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