Commentary

BC defense excels despite obstacles

Eagles' defense is bright spot in season filled with injuries, adversity

Updated: November 11, 2010, 1:31 AM ET
By Jack McCluskey | Special to ESPNBoston.com

NEWTON, Mass. -- Bruised, battered and beleaguered, the Boston College defense nevertheless always seems to bounce back.

As the losses piled up -- a five-game losing streak and three injured senior leaders (Alex Albright, Wes Davis and DeLeon Gause) -- the backups piled onto the field and, for the most part, have kept opponents from running up the score. With a few exceptions (a 19-0 loss to Virginia Tech, a 31-13 loss to Notre Dame and a 44-17 loss to NC State), the Eagles have been a couple of big plays on offense away from winning most of the games they've lost.

That's because the defense has not only overcome the losses of key players, but also has become one of the nation's best. The Eagles rank third in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 82.4 yards a contest. They haven't allowed an opposing rusher to gain more than 100 yards in a game since Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams did so last season.

[+] EnlargeBill McGovern
Michael Tureski/Icon SMIDefensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bill McGovern has kept BC's defense on point.

The Eagles are also tied for third in the country in forced turnovers, with 26. The only teams with more takeaways than BC are Hawaii (29) and No. 1 Oregon (28).

No team has more interceptions than the Eagles (No. 22 Florida also has 17), which isn't surprising considering the Chestnut Hill squad's history under Frank Spaziani.

"I'd love to say that it's the players, or everything like that, but I really have to give all the credit to Coach Spaz and [defensive coordinator and linebackers] Coach [Bill] McGovern, because players filter in and out of here every year and it keeps on staying up," senior linebacker Mark Herzlich said. "It's the system.

"Our defense is based around making people work for their yardage, so if we stop the run and make people have third-and-longs or second-and-longs, they'll have to air it out. So that's when we can get jams at the linebacker position, alter the routes and let the D-backs make some plays."

Though the defensive backfield has seen its fair share of injuries this season, the next man up has made plays more often than not. Asked to step into the starting lineup against Florida State in Week 6, Jim Noel made two interceptions and ran one back for a score.

Since Gause went down with a knee injury against Maryland in Week 7, Chris Fox has filled the void admirably. The fifth-year senior deflected three passes against Clemson in Week 8, then picked off a ball against Wake Forest in Week 9. Fox's interception against the Demon Deacons was one of four the Eagles collected in the game, all coming in the first half.

"I was thinking about [the Clemson game] when a couple I knocked down should've been caught," Fox said. "As it was coming, I was like, 'If you don't catch this one you're done for.' Hopefully I have a couple more of those in me."

While he was pleased to have the opportunity to make the play, Fox credited the defensive line for setting him and the other BC defensive backs up in the first place.

"They have done a heck of a job stepping up," Fox said of Max Holloway and Kasim Edebali, in for Albright and Brad Newman, respectively. "Max especially, stepping in for Albright, who was leading the ACC in sacks. To have a game where five out of his six tackles are behind the line of scrimmage is pretty impressive, to say the least.

"It makes my life easier out on the boundary. I don't have to make half as many plays when Max and Kevin Pierre-Louis get in there and make them for me."

Spaziani also attributed the recent spate of interceptions to the improved play of the defensive line.

"A lot of it is a rush," Spaziani said. "It seems that we've been able to get a little bit more immediacy on the quarterback. That was one of the problems [that] early we didn't have it; it seems like it's better.

"I think guys have improved there. The backup guys have come in and contributed, so that's been good. It's been a consistent effort."

As it has all season, the Eagles' defense will play a pivotal role in Saturday's game against Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium. Though they're just 3-6, the Blue Devils have won two straight ahead of this weekend's matchup and have demonstrated the ability to score points in bunches.

Averaging 27.6 points and 261.3 yards passing per game, the Blue Devils have been airing it out this season with quarterback Sean Renfree. The redshirt sophomore has four games with 300 or more yards passing this season, second in the ACC behind NC State's Russell Wilson, and is averaging 252.2 passing yards a game (third in the conference behind only Wilson's 279.3 mark and North Carolina signal-caller T.J. Yates' 256.9 mark).

"They have been throwing the ball all over the place the last few weeks; they've been putting up scores like middle school basketball games -- 55, 40-something points," Newman said. "It's definitely a point of emphasis this week: getting to the quarterback, making him uncomfortable, trying to really disrupt their passing game."

Which is not to say the Eagles will ignore the Blue Devils' running game. The Eagles know that in addition to Renfree, Duke has used true freshman quarterback Brandon Connette quite a bit this season. And when the frosh is in the game, it's four times more likely to be a running play.

Connette has rushed 63 times for 281 yards and six rushing touchdowns, and has thrown just 15 times for 82 yards and no touchdowns (with one interception).

"They're obviously gonna pass the ball a lot, we know that," Fox said, "but their running game hasn't done too bad. Hopefully, the guys like Max and Kasim will be able to step up and we'll shut down the run game. Hopefully. And on the back end we'll be able to take care of the passing game.

"We've been doing good so far, with one or two exceptions here and there, but I think we'll manage to put something together for them."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.

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