InsideTheACC: Previewing The Pinstripe Bowl

Penn State (6-6) will play Boston College (7-5) in the Nittany Lions’ first bowl game since 2011. We break down both sides of the match-up here.

Boston College Offense

  • Scoring Offense: 25.9 PPG (84th nationally)
  • Passing Offense: 132 YPG (123rd nationally)
  • Rushing Offese: 251.8 YPG (15th nationally)
  • Total Offense: 383.8 YPG (79th nationally)

The Boston College offense revolves around senior quarterback Tyler Murphy, but it has less to do with what he does with his arm, and more about his mobility. Murphy’s passing this season was nothing to write home about as he completed only 120 passes, with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, he carried the team on the ground, rushing for a team-high 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns, one shy of his touchdown total through the air. His 1,074 rushing yards also set a single season ACC record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Freshman Jon Hilliman had a breakout season for the Eagles, providing a second running threat to compliment Murphy. He rushed for 712 yards on 186 attempts, and had a team-high in touchdowns with 12.

The Eagles receiving corps didn’t have a lot of opportunity to make noise with the team’s run-heavy scheme, but the team has some capable receivers on their roster. Senior receivers Josh Bordner and Shakim Phillips tied for a team-high three touchdown receptions. Phillips is the main big-play threat, averaging 24.2 yards per catch. Bordner meanwhile, lead the team in receptions with 26, showing just how little the team relies on the passing game.

Boston College Defense and Special teams

  • Scoring Defense: 20.5 PPG (18th nationally)
  • Passing Defense: 218 YPG (49th nationally)
  • Rushing Defense: 95.5 YPG (4th nationally)
  • Total Defense: 313.5 YPG (12th nationally)

Like Penn State the Eagles boast a stellar defensive unit, headlined by their superb defense against the run. The line for Boston College is one of the biggest in college football, lead by 6’9″, 300-pounder Brian Mihalik. Mihalik and fellow lineman Kevin Kavalec are second on the team in sacks with 3.5 a piece, half a sack behind team-leading linebacker Josh Keyes with four. Keyes also contributed 63 tackles, second on the team for a linebacker and five behind junior Steven Daniels.

Leading the team in tackles with 70 is arguably the most important cog on their tough defense, junior defensive back Justin Simmons. Simmons, a safety turned corner, emerged last season as a key member of the Eagles defense. He continued his success this season, recording two interceptions and a sack in 2014. Senior defensive backs Manuel Asprilla and Dominique Williams complimented Simmons well, combining for 116 tackles this season.

Sophomore Myles Willis was a successful kick returner for the Eagles, turning 30 returns into 746 yards and one touchdown. Receiver Sherman Alston handled all but one of the team’s punt returns, and averaged 7.7 yards per return. The team went through two place kickers and a punter on kicking duties before settling on freshman Mike Knoll at the end of the season. Knoll connected on two of four field goal attempts and 10 of 11 extra points. Punter Alex Howell was used briefly on field goals, but missed half of his 10 attempts. Howell also punted 59 times for an average 42.95 yards per kick.

Penn State offense

  • Scoring offense: 19.8 PPG (115th nationally)
  • Passing offense: 221.9 YPG (73rd nationally)
  • Rushing offense: 103.6 YPG (120th nationally)
  • Total offense: 325.5 YPG (117th nationally)

Christian Hackenberg was a highly touted recruit who was expected to go very high when he eventually enters the NFL draft, but he became mired in a sophomore slump that lasted much of the 2014 season. Hackenberg struggled to adapt to head coach James Franklin’s system, and finished with a 54.4 completion rate and 2,606 yards on the season. He also sported a 1:2 touchdown to interception ratio and a quarterback rating of just 104. Freshman DaeSean Hamilton and sophomore Geno Lewis were the beneficiary of most of Hackenberg’s passes this season. Hamilton lead the team in receptions with 75 and yards with 848, while Lewis hauled in 48 catches for 669 receiving yards. Junior tight end Jesse James caught 35 passes, but three were for touchdowns, most on the Nittany Lions.

Penn State’s poor rushing attack did nothing to ease the offensive pressure on Hackenberg. The Nittany Lions were near the bottom of college football with only 103 rushing yards per game, and the team as a whole only rushed for 1,243 yards in 2014. Only three players on the team surpassed the 100-yard mark during the season, sophomore Akeel Lynch and seniors Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. Lynch had a team-high in rushes (130) and yards (603), while Belton lead the team in touchdowns with six and rushed for 518 yards. Zwinak played in only eight games and rushed for 112 yards on 40 attempts. With a lack of viable ground options pressure was put on Hackenberg to perform, and he was often forced into bad decisions.

Penn State Defense and Special teams

  • Scoring defense: 17.7 PPG (8th nationally)
  • Passing  defense: 185 YPG (10th nationally)
  • Rushing defense: 84.75 YPG (1st nationally)
  • Total defense: 269.8 YPG (2nd nationally)

The subpar Penn State offense has been bailed out numerous times by a defensive unit that ranks near the top of college football in almost all statistical categories. Senior Mike Hull was named an All-American and earned the award for Big Ten linebacker of the year following a monumental season. Hull stood head and shoulders above the rest of a talented Nittany Lions defense, and was the driving force behind their top-ranked run defense. Hull recorded 134 tackles on the season, more than double his next closest teammate, sophomore Nyeem Wartman who had 64. Hull also added two sacks and an interception. Penn State boasted a two-headed sack monster, comprised of junior lineman Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes. Zettel lead the team with eight sacks and three interceptions, while Barnes added six sacks.

There is little drop-off when looking at the Nittany Lions pass defense, which is a top 10 unit in its own right. Freshman defensive back Marcus Allen had a solid first season and lead the team in secondary tackles with 52. Adrian Amos secured three interceptions, most on the team by a defensive back, while Trevor Williams and Jesse Della Valle each had a pair of picks.

The senior Della Valle also handled punt returns for the Nittany Lions, averaging just under eight yards per return on 16 attempts. Freshman defensive back Grant Haley returned 30 of the team’s 32 kickoffs and had an average of 20.7 yards. Senior Sam Ficken was perfect on extra point tries but missed five of his 28 field goal attempts. Punting duties were handled by a pair of freshmen, Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla, who both averaged 37 yards per punt.

Outlook and Prediction

This game could be one of the lowest scoring in all of the 2014 bowl games. Neither side features many offensive weapons and both have tremendous defensive units. Penn State struggled against the mobile J.T. Barrett of Ohio State, but should have more success containing Murphy, leading to a narrow victory in Penn State’s return to bowl play.

Penn State 16 Boston College 13 (Overtime)



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