Tech might have thought it could avoid facing Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec after he suffered a wrist injury in the second game of the season that required surgery. The Jackets were not so lucky, as he returned for the Eagles’ 17-3 win over Virginia Tech on Friday that ended the team’s four-game losing streak. Tech knows him well. A year ago, he threw for a relatively light 145 yards on 13-for-21 passing against the Jackets, but threw two touchdown passes and was difficult to bring down in the pocket. He also ran for 94 yards in the Eagles’ 48-27 win in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“He’s a big kid,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “Whatever they list him as – 6-3, 235 (actually, 6-foot-5, 226 pounds) – he’s all of that on game day.”
Last season, he completed 61% of his passes, averaged 255.8 yards per game and had a 17/5 touchdown/interception ratio.
“He was a big dude, so we’re just looking to hit him in his body and look to gang tackle,” defensive end Jared Ivey said. “First guy in there (will) look to keep him wrapped up and keep him in one spot so our pursuit can get there.”
2. Pass defense under stress again
Against Jurkovec, the Jackets know they’ll be tested. Tech ranks 123rd in FBS in defensive passing efficiency, second to last among power-conference teams. The 20/3 touchdown/interception ratio ranks highest among power-conference teams. (That the Jackets have faced a string of high-level passing offenses is a factor, although some of them have played at their peak against Tech.)
The Jackets may be getting incrementally better at defending the pass, but Thacker acknowledged shortcomings both in the front and back ends of the defense. Thacker has tried to mix up pressures and fronts, and the Jackets sometimes have been close to getting to the quarterback, but “we need to relieve the coverage by attacking and making him feel uncomfortable,” he said.
And while the pass rush plays a significant role in pass defense, it hasn’t excused a secondary that is playing its coverages better, but still has been getting beaten one-on-one and playing techniques improperly. Thacker acknowledged that that experience-laden group has to perform better.
“We need to coach better; they need to play at a higher level right there,” he said. “We need to execute at a high level. Absolutely.”
3. Scouting the Eagles
The Boston College style is low on elegance but high on force. Both Thacker and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude invoked the word “physical” to described their style.
“Big guys control the line of scrimmage, always have an extra player near the line of scrimmage, stop the run, play a lot of man,” Patenaude said.
Patenaude said that getting the ball to the perimeter can defeat that brawny style, “but ultimately you have to be able to run the ball between the tackles.” Boston College ranks 10th in FBS in defensive third-down conversion rate (30.5%). The Eagles are tied for 29th in yards per pass attempt (6.8) but 103rd in yards per rush (4.72).
Thacker said that the Eagles’ offense focuses on a downhill running game. Tech defenders, he said, will have to play with an edge.
“The running backs match the style, as well,” he said. “They’re physical, lower-center-of-gravity thick-core guys that will run through tackles if you don’t tackle them low.”
Boston College averaged 81.8 rushing yards in its four games before its win over Virginia Tech, in which the Eagles gashed the Hokies for 234 yards. The Jackets also will have to be aware of receiver Zay Flowers, a first-team All-ACC pick last season.
4. Penalties on rise
After staying away from penalties for much of the season – a high priority after finishing 119th in FBS in penalty yardage per game last season (74.9) – the Jackets have been getting flagged more frequently in recent games.
Tech was called for eight penalties for 76 yards in the loss to Miami, including two that extended Hurricanes drives after apparent third-down stops and another on a Jackets kickoff return that moved the team from its 39-yard line to its 13. The last flag set in motion a three-and-out for Tech and then a Miami drive that started at its 49 and resulted in the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“We should have been off the field (after the third-down plays), but the penalties got us and extended drives, and that cannot happen,” Collins said.
After averaging five penalties for 40.4 yards in the first five games, Tech has been flagged a total of 15 times for 153 yards in the past two games combined. Boston College ranks second in the ACC with five penalties per game for 42.2 yards. (Tech is third.)
5. Thomas’ diverse scoring
Safety Juanyeh Thomas made one of the plays of Tech’s season by returning an interception on Miami’s two-point conversion try all the way for a rare defensive two-point conversion. Following blocks from defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen and cornerback Zamari Walton, Thomas barely made it to the end zone, collapsing at the goal line.
“Literally, I don’t think I could run further,” Thomas said. “I saw the end zone, and I just dropped to the ground because I was too tired.”
That added to an unusual collection of scores for Thomas. As a freshman in 2018, Thomas scored on a 95-yard interception return, a 100-yard kickoff return and a 77-yard return of a free kick after a safety. It’s possible that no other player in the history of college football has scored in that set of ways and certainly not covering that yardage. (The NCAA could not confirm if Thomas is the first to score via each of those means.)
“I am very blessed to be able to have those long returns, and it just shows, if you do your job, things will come to you,” Thomas said.
As a defensive player whose return specialist days appear behind him – although his brother Azende Rey returns punts – a fumble return for a touchdown appears the lone remaining possibility. (Safeties are credited to a team and not a player.)