Presented in the right context, the performance of the Boston College defense in a 24-14 loss to No. 3 Clemson yesterday was only slightly short of incredible. The numbers are a good place to start.
The 494 yards allowed may seem like a lot, but that number was still below the Tigers' season average of 518 heading into the game. Clemson's 162-yard rushing total against the Eagles was its second lowest mark of the season. Of the 37 Clemson rushing attempts, just five surpassed double-digits, with two of those fives going for just 11-yards. The Tigers brought one of the most explosive offenses in the country into the game, and the BC defense did a significantly better than expected job preventing big plays-at least on the ground. BC's front seven held strong.
Clemson found more success in the passing game, accumulating 334 yards, but BC limited the big plays there as well. The Eagles allowed Tajh Boyd to complete just two passes of twenty yards or more in the first half, and then gave up only one, the 48-yard touchdown to Sammy Watkins, in the second half.
The sequence leading up to and including Watkins' touchdown illuminated both the strengths and weakness of Don Brown's scheme. Boyd originally hit Martavis Bryant on a go route down the right side for the score, but it got called back because of an illegal formation. Manny Asprilla stayed stride for stride with Bryant on the play until Bryant's athleticism took over during the jump ball.
After a quick pass, Clemson went back to the same play-this time to Sammy Watkins. Al Louis-Jean didn't keep up with Watkins as well as Asprilla stayed with Bryant and Clemson made up for the earlier penalty by earning the go-ahead touchdown.
It looked like BC should have learned its lesson the first time around that man coverage just wouldn't work in this game. That may not have been the case, though, and it also just might not be this defense's style under Brown.
There are quick scoring possessions like the one that ended in Watkins' touchdown. There are also possessions like the one at the end of the first half that led to a Clemson field goal. This is the conservative style that Brown and Addazio have said BC can't play except situationally. It's saved for games against weird offenses like Army or for the ends of halves when the team can't give up a touchdown.
Asprilla, Louis-Jean, Sean Sylvia, Bryce Jones, Spenser Rositano, Dominique Williams, and the rest of the BC secondary can't play straight man coverage for a full game against the best ACC competition without getting burned once or twice. The necessary risk that BC has decided to roll with is that the multiple-look pass rush will make up for the man coverage deficiencies on plays when opposing offenses look to take advantage.
Boyd, for the most part, did an excellent job avoiding the BC pressure throughout the game. It's one of the reasons he's a Heisman candidate. The Eagle pass rushers, especially on the defensive line, need to improve on tackling in the backfield. They've taken tremendous strides in the ability to get to the quarterback, and now they need to finish the job.
But it still says a lot about this defense that with zero sacks and four tackles for loss they still only allowed two touchdowns to such a potent offensive attack. It wasn't enough to upset the No. 3 team in the country, but it might be enough to get the program back to a bowl game, especially if the unit continues to improve.