After a seeming eternity between games, finally, live UNC football is within reach. On Saturday, the 1-0 Heels will take on the somewhat surprisingly 2-0 Boston College Eagles in Chestnut Hill. A lot has happened in the ACC since the Heels were last in action, including their scheduling of another non-conference game and the conference hierarchy beginning to shake out clearly. After missing out on this process at first, this is the Heels’ chance to prove that they belong where they think they do, right near the top. Let’s get into this preview, then:
UNC at Boston College
October 4th, 3:30 PM ET
Line: UNC -13.5
The BC Offense
This isn’t really the Boston College you’re used to seeing under Steve Addazio, with big, athletic linemen and punishing running ground games headlined by guys like A.J. Dillion. Under Jeff Hafley through 2 games, they’ve opened things up a little, attempting about 7 more passes per game and 15 (!) fewer runs, though the personnel is still largely Addazio’s, meaning that offensive line still has plenty of beef. It so far hasn’t translated to strong play, though. They don’t have a strong run game; BC running backs are averaging just over 2.5 yards per carry so far. David Bailey in particular, was quite good last year but just hasn’t found his footing right now with a new coach and system. And the offensive line has also allowed 8 sacks through two games! On a more positive note for the Eagles, the signal-caller is Hafley’s: Notre Dame transfer (eventually deemed immediately eligible) Phil Jurkovec, who’s completed 43/61 of his passes (70.5%) for 510 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, and orchestrated a comeback win against Texas State. He’s also done some damage on the ground, with two more touchdowns coming that way. He’s not much of a threat to take off for chunk yardage, with 20 rushes for 44 yards (reminder that the NCAA counts sacks as negative rushing yards for some reason), but he’s big and tough to get down before he makes something positive happen. He’s already more than endeared himself to Boston College fans through his play; he’s been accurate and he’s made his share of big plays already. Sure, he’s looked uncomfortable at times, including for long stretches against Texas State, but he’s regained composure every time so far, and that’s to be commended. And as for the people on the other ends of those plays, the big name is tight end Hunter Long, who has 16 of the Eagles’ 43 receptions, most in the country by a tight end, for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns. He presents a matchup problem, and the UNC linebackers and safeties are going to have their hands full taking him on. Zay Flowers is a big-play threat at wide receiver; he tore Duke up to the tune of 162 yards and a touchdown on just 5 catches. Hafley’s going to dial up some shots, and Jurkovec is going to throw them, so Flowers can get going in a hurry. On the other hand, he was stifled by Texas State, so it does seem like there’s tape on how to keep him quiet.
The BC Defense
This is a really interesting study, because this unit was two different things against Duke and Texas State, and not in the way you’d expect given the talent discrepancy. Against Duke, the Eagles were a stifling pass defense, holding a previously-impressive Chase Brice to 23/42 for 217 yards, no scores, and 2 interceptions. They also forced and recovered three fumbles, showing a real nose for the ball. On the other hand, they were pretty leaky in the run game, allowing Deon Jackson to rip off 5 yards per carry — and he’s not a particularly good runner. Against Texas State, the pass defense was off, allowing the TSU quarterback to complete 19 of his 29 passes, or 66%, for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns. They did get another pick, but that was their only turnover of the game. But in the run game, they were suddenly stout, giving up just 3.2 yards per carry despite the Texas State coaches trying to wear them out with 40 rushing attempts. My guess is twofold — that Duke’s early good signs were just first-game weirdness, which seems to be confirmed by their hapless showing against Virginia Tech, and that BC is closer to what we saw against Duke, if inflated by the Duke offense being pretty bad. Their defensive backs have a better reputation than their defensive front, and those takeaways are scary. BC’s zone is susceptible to the intermediate middle of the field, and while that’s not what Phil Longo always likes to look for because that’s where you have less open grass, it’s something to keep in mind. The Eagles’ defensive front also looks liable to be pushed back in the run game by a strong offensive line like the Heels have, and if they aren’t better than not being able to stop Jackson, Carter and Williams are in line for a field day. This feels like a defense primed to take advantage of offensive mistakes rather than one that will out-execute; a defense built, in other words, for a game that favors offense. Sam Howell and co. just need to make sure they let their talent and preparation do the work: don’t throw the ball where defenders can make a play, don’t put the ball on the ground.
Other Notes and Outlook:
Boston College has so far very much been a second-half team: In both of their first halfs so far, they’ve been incredibly sluggish and bailed out by opponents who couldn’t put enough distance between them and the Eagles. Jurkovec has the 2nd-most 2nd-half passing yards in the country, showing how much he and his team have woken up after the midway breaks. If they start slow again, it is imperative that the Tar Heels take advantage and put points on the board, getting the Eagles into a deep early hole. This team isn’t going to change games on special teams, with a negative punt return average and two missed field goals already.
It’s pretty clear at this point, at least, that this game is not going to be the warmup that it looked like it might be when the COVID-adjusted schedule was announced. Jeff Hafley has done a fantastic job of getting a team of mostly a previous regime’s players on the same page and playing for each other, and I think he’s going to be one of the ACC’s very good coaches very soon. But they’re still undergoing some growing pains and have some key weaknesses that UNC is designed to exploit, on both sides of the ball. The money line feels about right here: I think UNC takes this comfortably by double digits, shaking off any offensive rust left over from the Syracuse game.
Score prediction: UNC 34, BC 20