The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Pinstripe Bowl preview.
WHAT: New Era Pinstripe Bowl
WHEN: Saturday, December 27 – 4:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Yankee Stadium – Bronx, NY
Two of the more storied football programs in the Northeast, both embroiled in on-field misery or off-field turmoil in recent years, renew acquaintances in the Big Apple.
Penn State makes its first bowl appearance in three seasons, granted early relief from a five-year NCAA probationary period in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky abuse and Joe Paterno cover-up scandals. First-year head coach James Franklin oversaw the Nittany Lions as they finished with their worst Big Ten conference record (2-6) since 2004. Following a 4-0 start that included narrow wins over Central Florida and Rutgers, PSU lost six of their next eight games. The setbacks included a 5-point loss at Michigan and a 7-point overtime loss to national semi-finalist Ohio State.
Under second-year head coach Steve Addazio, the Eagles have emerged from the doldrums of the Frank Spaziani era in which the school finished 21-29 over four seasons. Addazio engineered a stunning reversal in 2013, when BC improved from a 2-10 mark in 2012 to finish 7-5 and earn an Independence Bowl invitation. This year Addazio led the Eagles to a 5-3 mark in ACC play. Boston College narrowly missed pulling off upsets against both then-No. 24 Clemson (a 17-13 loss in Week 7) and then-No. 3 Florida State (a 20-17 Seminoles win in Week 11). The rapid two-year turnaround by the Eagles earned Addazio an extension to roam the sidelines at Chestnut Hill through 2020.
When Boston College Has The Ball
For the Eagles, the action begins and often ends with quarterback Tyler Murphy, a fifth-year graduate student who already received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida yet still had NCAA eligibility remaining when he followed Addazio to Boston College. Murphy brings a dual-threat package to the field, setting an ACC record this season for rushing yards by a QB (1,079) while scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground. Through the air, Murphy passed for 1,526 yards and 11 TDs, though accuracy proved an Achilles heel as he completed just 56.9% of his attempts (ranking 89th among 121 qualified FBS quarterbacks) and threw 10 interceptions.
In BC’s 37-31 upset win over then-No. 9 USC in Week 3, Murphy struggled through the air (5-for-13, 54 yards, 1 INT) but he put on a show with his legs, keeping the ball 19 times for 191 yards including this 66-yard sprint with 3:30 left in the game to effectively ice the Eagles’ victory. Operating from the shotgun with 12 personnel and a balanced 7-man front, Murphy takes the snap and fakes an inside handoff to running back Jon Hilliman:
Two Trojans bite on the fake. At the top of the screen, edge rusher J.R. Tavai (#58) heads into the backfield unblocked, while defensive tackle Delvon Simmons (#52), sneaks through the B-gap between left tackle Seth Betancourt (#67) and left guard Bobby Vardaro (#76). The LT instead advances toward linebacker Anthony Sarao (#56) at the second level, while the LG briefly double-teams the nose tackle before peeling off to run-block.
Murphy sweeps left past the oblivious Tavai and cuts sharply upfield, getting a key block to his left from tight end Michael Giacone (#88) on USC’s strong safety. Sarao, guarding against a sideline run, sees the inside cut and turns tail in pursuit, but makes his adjustment too late. With nothing but real estate ahead of him, Murphy is off to the races and needs no forward blocking as he outruns the LB and two other Trojan defenders.
Anyone up for some deja vu? Here’s an eerily similar play against the vaunted Seminoles with the same result:
Again, it’s a balanced front for the Eagles. Again, a faked inside handoff (to Marcus Outlow, #7) helps draw the defense to the offensive right. Again, BC allows a free release to a defender through the line into the backfield and rendered moot. Again, the offensive line flawlessly moves the opposition away from the play. Again, a block by the tight end to Murphy’s left clears the way. And again, nothing but open grass between the QB and the end zone.
The still frame below illustrates the beauty of the play design and its execution:
Pre-snap motion by Sherman Alston (#6, yellow arrow) aids in selling the Noles. BC’s linemen ultimately orient themselves with their backs to the near sideline (red box), creating a wall between their opponents and Murphy’s running lane (blue arrow). Giacone (green box) wards off defensive back P.J. Williams (#26), and it’s clear sailing for the touchdown.
The stout and experienced Eagles offensive line (all seniors) also helped open holes this season for a fleet of running backs who tallied nearly 2,000 combined ground yards. Chief among them, freshman Hilliman carried 185 times for 712 yards and 12 TDs. Overall, the BC rushing attack accrued 3,022 yards and ranked 14th nationally with 252 yards per game.
When Murphy opts to throw, his targets include the only BC receivers to catch more than 15 passes this season: senior Josh Bordner (26 for 342 yards, 3 TDs) and junior Dan Crimmins (23 for 297 yards, 0 TD). A lesser-used deep threat, senior Shakim Phillips snared 10 catches for an average of 24.2 yards and 3 TDs.
Penn State’s defense in one word? Stifling. The Nittany Lions yielded 270 total yards per game, trailing only Clemson among the 128 FBS programs. Nobody fared better against the run than PSU, which allowed just 84.6 ground yards per contest, and the Lions ranked 10th in pass defense (185 YPG). Junior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, in his first year at the position after playing defensive end, made 15 tackles for losses, 8 sacks and 3 interceptions. Senior linebacker Mike Hull, a consensus All-American, led the Big Ten with 134 tackles (11.2 per game). On this play, Hull (#43) and strong safety Adrian Amos (#4) combine to halt a scoring attempt by Maryland at the goal line:
After faking an inside handoff, Terps QB C.J. Brown tosses a bubble screen to flanker Stefon Diggs, who comes up on the short end of a triple-helmet collision. While Amos shadows the ball carrier’s movements on the same side of the field, Hull comes shooting over from the opposite side to help make the stop.
Just before halftime of the same game, Hull shows his quickness in reacting on a short pass:
Brown throws another screen, this time to running back Brandon Ross (#45). After easily sidestepping the block attempt of Jacquille Veii (#34), Hull sprints laterally to his left while Ross sweeps and prepares to turn upfield. Off-screen, a hit on Ross by PSU cornerback Trevor Williams jars the ball loose, and Hull is there to pounce on it for the fumble recovery.
When Penn State Has The Ball
Like Murphy, Nittany Lions QB Christian Hackenburg struggled to find consistency when passing (54.4% completion rate, 8 TDs, 15 INT). Two major differences between the two: Penn State’s reliance on Hackenburg’s air game (434 attempts vs Murphy’s 211) and the complete lack of any ground threat posed by the Lions’ sophomore signal-caller (not a single carry this season). Freshman DaeSean Hamilton proved a quick study, leading the team in receptions (75) and yards (848) for an 11.3-yard average, and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Sophomore wideout Geno Lewis (48 catches, 669 yards, 1 TD) and junior tight end Jesse James (35 catches, 369 yards, 3 TD) also find themselves frequent targets.
Penn State ranked 120th with 103.6 rushing yards per game and only three FBS schools had a lower average gain per carry than the Lions (2.9). Akeel Lynch (130 carries, 603 yards, 4.6 YPC, 4 TDs) and Bill Belton (122 carries, 518 yrds, 4.2 YPC, 6 TDs) shouldered the ground load for PSU.
As dominant as the Nittany Lions defense has been statistically, the Eagles merit plaudits of their own after finishing 12th in the nation in fewest total yards allowed per game (313). They ranked 49th in pass defense, allowing 218 yards per game, but faced far more potent air attacks than Penn State did this season; BC’s opponents included the 8th (Colorado State), 10th (Massachusetts), 14th (Florida State) and 15th (USC) most prolific passing offenses in the land. Against the run, Boston College placed 4th nationally with 94.8 yards allowed per game.
Murphy ranks among CBS Sportsline’s top 40 draft-eligible QB prospects, but projects to go undrafted next May. Eagles center Andy Gallik, ranked fourth at the position by CBS, slots as a possible 3rd-round pick. Boston College defensive end Brian Mihalik, a 6’9”, 295-pound behemoth, projects as a 7th-rounder.
For Penn State, CBS sees Hull as a 6th- or 7th-round selection with Amos going in the 4th or 5th round. Other Nittany Lions who could hear their names called in the later rounds include guard Miles Dieffenbach, defensive end C.J. Olaniyan, and fullback Zach Zwinak.
Expect a defense-heavy battle, with Murphy’s versatility and athleticism making the difference in the end.
Boston College 20, Penn State 17
Video and images courtesy of ACC Digital Network, York Daily Record and PennLive.com
Follow Mark on Twitter @mabrowndog.