Five Questions For BC At The Break

November 05, 2009 - 2:42 pm

There are three games left for Boston College in the regular season and there are questions that remain to be answered. This week the Eagles get a much deserved bye after trucking through summer camp and the first nine weeks of the season without a break. There is still practice and conditioning work to be done, but the players can get a mental breather, catch up on some schoolwork and evaluate the next opponent, Virginia, whom the Eagles play in Charlottesville, Va., on Nov. 14. "It's definitely a week where, maybe not necessarily relax, because you still have to go out to practice and put the work in, it is a little bit more relaxing knowing that you have both Friday and Saturday off," true freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly said. Kuechly and junior free safety Wes Davis both broke out big smiles when asked what they would be doing on Saturday. "Watching football," they both said. "Time to get your mind right and relax a little bit. ... We get a good quarter of Big Ten football before we play a 3:30 game and the game comes on at 7:30 on ESPN, but that is about it," Davis said. "I get up when my body wakes up. It is a nice feeling, actually." So, while the players get some rest and catch up with the rest of the college football action in the nation, here are some questions facing the Eagles for the rest of the season. Do the Eagles still have a shot at the ACC title game? Technically, yes. To be the winner of the ACC Atlantic Division, Boston College definitely will have to win at least two of its last three games, preferably all three, all of which are conference opponents. Especially pivotal is the last game of the season against Maryland as divisional record (which is secondary to overall conference record) is the third tiebreaker should it come down to that. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition, which may be a problem for the Eagles as they are currently tied with Clemson (5-3, 3-2 ACC) atop the Atlantic Division and lost to the Tigers in Week 3. Clemson hosts Florida State this week before going to NC State and finishing at home against Virginia. After BC's trip to UVA, it hosts North Carolina (with the nation's seventh-ranked defense) before going to Maryland. If the Eagles and the Tigers both win out, Clemson would get the nod. A third conference loss by either team would create a variety of scenarios, as Florida State and Wake Forest would be back in the hunt as both teams are at three losses. Can BC steal two games on the road? This is the tough part for the Eagles. They are 6-0 at home, 0-3 on the road. If a trip to Tampa is in order then they will need to break serve on the road. All three of those losses  have come at some of the most hostile environments in college football (Clemson, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame). Virginia and Maryland are not exactly bastions of good will, either. Both the Cavaliers and the Terrapins are second- (or third-) tier ACC teams, but when North Carolina (1-3 ACC) can knock off Virginia Tech (as it did last week), then it goes to show that just about anything can happen in the cluster that is the mediocre ACC. The trick for the Eagles will be to get the offense going away from Alumni Stadium. In that vein, the game against Notre Dame was an encouraging sign. Freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie was able to make throws downfield to senior Rich Gunnell and sophomore Colin Larmond, Jr. If Montel Harris and the offensive line can string together enough of a run game to set up play-action or the bazooka, then it is possible that the Eagles could steal those two games. Is there enough depth at running back? Speaking of Harris, a whole world of hope has been dropped on his shoulders. He remains the Horse, but his Hound, Josh Haden, has transferred out of the program. The successor to Haden, true freshman Rolandan Finch, has mononucleosis and likely will be unavailable until the week of the ACC championship game, if at all. When Haden transferred, a lot of people asked, "Why would he do that? He was just a twisted ankle away from being the starter." Now the backup duties fall to senior Jeff Smith along with fullback James McCluskey. Though, if the Central Michigan game is any indication, there really is not much of a plan behind Harris. McCluskey carried three times for seven yards and that was it for the running backs. In two games without Haden, Harris has taken nearly all the snaps (22 for 38 yards against Notre Dame, 27 for 136 against Central Michigan) with no backup in sight. If Harris were to go down, that would eliminate even the semblance of a running threat and enable opposing defenses to tee off on Shinskie, something the freshman probably is not ready for yet. Can the defense keep bending without breaking? The answer here is a definitive yes, though it mostly depends on the opponents the Eagles are facing. Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia are the offensive bottom-feeders in the conference at 10th, 11th and 12th (in that order) in total offense and and scoring. After a mind-numbing stretch during which BC faced some of the best quarterbacks in the nation, none of the remaining opponents has an offense that should be feared. BC is fourth in the conference in scoring defense though ninth in total defense, mostly because they play soft covers that give up yards but do not allow scores. BC does not have the manpower to be stifling, but so far defensive coordinator Bill McGovern's schemes have worked out (for the most part) with players such as Kuechly (13th nationally with 10.44 tackles per game, fifth in the nation with 6.44 solo tackles per game) and senior Marcellus Bowman making the big hits when they are needed. Can Shinskie carry the offense where it needs to go? The 25-year-old freshman has progressed a lot this year. He has turned from stumbler and fumbler to game manager to play-maker. Against Notre Dame he hit 10 passes for 20 yards or more and followed it up with an 18-for-28, 262-yard game against Central Michigan last week. Has he made enough progress that he can get the Eagles offense rolling? Especially on the road where his travails have been so horrific? Well, maybe. Watching Shinskie this year, on and off the field, has been an interesting case study. He has grown more confidence as a passer, making quicker reads and getting out of the pocket when needed. During media lunches he now strolls into the room with music blaring from his headphones, makes a sandwich and waits his turn in the interview pool. The strolling and sandwich were absent earlier in the year. Shinskie still has his problems. His accuracy has not been great at times, either throwing high or low or behind receivers, and every once and a while he will have a lazy play or bad decision that costs the Eagles dearly. That was especially true against Notre Dame, where he botched a handoff to Harris that led to a turnover and then made the wrong decision on where to throw the ball on the final drive that led to a game-ending interception (Gunnell, for his part, takes partial responsibility for that play). Then there are times like last week when he not once, but twice, eluded a blitzing defender, stepped up and made a play. It was not flashy footwork, just a quality side step to let the rusher go by. Once he made a throw for a first down, the second time he took it himself to gain a first-and-goal that led to a Harris touchdown. These next three weeks could prove difficult, though, as North Carolina is first in the conference in total defense with Virginia right ahead of BC at fifth (Maryland is 11th). Shinskie's job will be to play careful and smart and trust that his coaches are putting him in the right spot to succeed while still making the big plays that could mean the difference between a trip to Tampa or a trip to the couch to watch the ACC championship.