by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Numbers can be manipulated in so many different ways to tell so many different stories. There are good statistics, but plenty of bad ones, too. As part of our preview coverage, we’ll try and pick out five of the former category in the hopes of painting a comprehensive numerical portrait for Northwestern’s upcoming opponent. This week: Boston College.
37.5: Average points scored per game in 2012.
As offenses go, Boston College’s 2011 unit was disturbingly incompetent. The Eagles finished last among ACC teams in both scoring offense (18.2 ppg) and total offense (298.2 ypg). It wasn’t so much the defenses they played against as it was their own offensive deficiencies. Perhaps the one redeeming aspect on that side of the ball last season was the development of a deep running back corps, which may have never happened if not for Montel Harris – who entering last season threatened to break Ted Brown’s career ACC rushing record – suffering a season-ending injury after just two games.
The Eagles didn’t hit the 75-point mark until week four last season, following a 45-point outburst against then-FCS foe UMass. This year, under new coordinator Doug Martin, the offense has flourished. Miami and Maine are not strong defenses by any stretch, but it’s reasonable to assume the offense is at least slightly more imposing than it was last season. With Rettig under center, forming a nice rapport with rising junior receiver Alex Amidon, the Eagles have amassed 600 yards through the air. Add in a potent ground game – the three-headed rushing attack featuring Rolandan Finch, Tahj Kimble and Andre Williams has accounted for 285 yards – and there’s little doubt this offense will outscore the feeble 2011 version.
248: Receiving yards through two games for Alex Amidon.
With three top pass-catchers injured to start the season, Amidon has emerged as Rettig’s No. 1 target. He hauled in 20 passes for 211 yards last season, made huge strides in the spring and continued that progression into preseason camp. Though he’s yet to come up against a strong defensive unit, Amidon has clearly formed a rapport with Rettig and is well on his way to a 1,000-yd receiving season. Martin’s west-coast passing game provides an optimal route configuration for Amidon, a speedy pass-catcher with great hands.
As Rettig matures and continues to progress in what’s almost sure to be the best season of his college career, he will look to Amidon, his most proven and reliable target. Whether he can continue this torrid pace against ACC defenses is an open question, but Amidon doesn’t look like the same receiver he was last season. He looks markedly better
532: Tackles in three seasons credited to former linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Replacing Kuechly’s production is a massive challenge for defensive coordinator Bill McGovern. Kuechly, a first round draft pick this spring, completed historic feats during his time at the school and now ranks among the NCAA’s statistical leaders in several major categories: career total tackles (532; second), career total tackles per game (14.0; first), career solo tackles (299; sixth), career solo tackles per game (7.87; second). The good news is that Boston College doesn’t have to replace him with any one player, nor does it have anyone on its roster capable of reprising Kuechly’s production.
It will require a combination of efforts, but the brunt of the Kuechly-replacement project will fall on OLB Kevin Pierre-Louis. Pierre-Louis is coming off a 74-tackle season and is now entering his third-year as a full-time starter. He brings tenacity and playmaking ability along with great speed and a relentless motor. Pierre-Louis, barring injury or other unforeseen events, is on track for a huge season; this won’t shock anyone. More surprising is senior linebacker Nick Clancy taking hold of the middle linebacker spot with little in the way of previous starting experience. Another player to watch out for is OLB Sean Duggan, who showed promise in three starts as a true freshman last season. The talent at linebacker is promising, but there’s bound to be a noticeable downturn in overall performance after losing a player as effective and transcendent at Kuechly. His loss is enormous from a competitive standpoint: for three years Kuechly was a one-man wrecking ball, an indomitable force inspiring fear in opposing ball carriers. It’s nearly as damaging on the leadership front, where Kuechly was captain of the defense and a positive force of encouragement in the locker room.
660: Passing yards through two games for quarterback Chase Rettig.
The single most influential component of the Eagles’ 2011 season is Rettig, and how he fares after an enduring 4-8 campaign a year ago. After making significant strides this offseason, both physically and mentally, Rettig is poised for a breakout season. Martin is the latest product in a revolving door of offensive coordinators, but Rettig has taken well to his aerial attack. Behind an experienced offensive line, the junior has quietly put together one of the nation’s best two-week stretches quarterback play (He ranks eighth nationally with a 330 passing yards per game average). A few injuries at receiver have limited his production ceiling, but Amidon has provided a solid No. 1 option.
It’s difficult to forecast how Rettig will perform against better defenses. He has yet to face Florida State’s vaunted unit, Viriginia Tech’s traditionally stingy group or North Carolina State’s star-laden secondary, plus a host of other stout ACC defenses. The early returns on Rettig’s third season are nonetheless promising, and he should improve as he asserts himself within Martin’s system. In a year with so many talented ACC quarterbacks – NC State’s Mike Glennon, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, North Carolina’s Bryn Renner, Florida State’s EJ Manuel – Rettig is flying under the radar at this early juncture. But if he continues to put up prolific numbers, and adds a few upset wins along the way, the league and the nation will take notice.
3: Number of games won in the final five weeks of last season.
Last season probably crushed coach Frank Spaziani’s hope of keeping his position beyond 2012, but there were signs of encouragement in the latter portion of conference play. In five weeks, the Eagles knocked off Maryland (28-17), North Carolina State (14-10), Miami (24-17) and lost to Notre Dame by just two points. Rettig, despite a poor outing against the Irish, improved over the final four games of the season, highlighted by a 13-for-17, two-touchdown game in the win against the Hurricanes. He has carried that momentum into this season, and his early performance suggests a seasoned and more experienced version of the Rettig we knew last season. While Miami exacted revenge in the season-opener this year, the Eagles did everything but win that game, with a few missed assignments and overall poor execution to blame for the loss.
This isn’t to say Boston College will win the ACC, or that it’s a sure bet to reach a bowl game this season. It’s merely to note that the Eagles have won four of their last seven games, with noticeable improvements on both sides of the ball to show for it. If they can continue these encouraging signs, it’s not out of the question Boston College could make some noise in an arguably top-heavy Atlantic division. Spaziani, in what has the looks of a textbook lameduck coaching situation, will not go down without a fight. With Rettig and Pierre-Louis and Amidon, there is enough talent and depth in both phases of the game to improve from last season’s disaster. The Eagles proved they could hang with above-average competition (Miami, Notre Dame, NC State) last year. Despite the loss of Kuechly, they have enough pieces to make something positive out of Spaziani’s probable swan-song season.