CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — It’s been more than nine months since A.J. Dillon ran the football in a college game. Since that day, a home loss to Syracuse, the Boston College star running back’s carries have come in practice — spring and fall — against his teammates.
“What makes him a great running back is you can’t tackle him,” BC defensive tackle Tanner Karafa said this week. “He runs through contact, he drives his feet. I think he’s made our guys a lot better at tackling. He’s made us a better defense.”
Saturday in Chestnut Hill, Virginia Tech gets its shot to slow down Dillon, who led the ACC in rushing last season, averaging 110.8 yards per game.
There was a time that a player rushing for 100 yards against a Virginia Tech defense would have been a rare feat. But in 2018, it happened nine times.
Three players — Pittsburgh running back Qadree Ollison, Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver and Marshall running back Brenden Knox — put up more than 200 yards on longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit. In the Hokies’ loss to Pittsburgh, the Panthers had two 100-yard rushers in the same game. Ollison went for 235 yards and three scores and teammate Darrin Hall added 186 and a score.
In all, Virginia Tech went 3-5 when allowing an opposing player to run for more than 100 yards.
Dillon, somewhat surprisingly, wasn’t one of the players to hit the hundred mark against the Hokies, though he certainly came close. He dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the year and re-aggravated the injury in the Eagles’ 31-21 win over Tech.
Still, he rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown in that game. Travis Levy, his backup, added 75 yards and two scores.
“Our guys do know how hard he runs and how physical he is and how physical they are,” Foster said this week. “I’m hoping our guys just have a true understanding of how good he really is and what we’re going to have to do to bring him down and how physical we’re going to have to play up front and how important tackling is going to be from not just our front six or seven, but they’re going to make our [defensive backs] tackle.”
The Hokies had an awful season defensively, giving up 210.3 rushing yards per game, the fourth most in the ACC. Foster, who is retiring after this season after 33 years on the Tech staff, believes last year’s experience should have his unit ready to take a big jump in 2019.
A Week 1 matchup with Dillon figures to reveal plenty.
“What better opponent to start out with than Boston College to see where we are at?” said junior defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt.
Veterans behind center: Saturday’s game features two of the ACC’s most experienced quarterbacks. Virginia Tech’s Ryan Willis, counting his two seasons at Kansas before transferring, will be making his 22nd career start. The only quarterback in the league with more starts under his belt is BC’s Anthony Brown. Brown will be behind center to start a game for the 24th time.
Willis and Brown also are the quarterbacks with the most career touchdown passes currently in the league. Willis has thrown 36 scoring strikes in his career, and Brown has 31.
Matchup to watch: Virginia Tech sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield said this week that he could “smell football in the air.” The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Hollifield will need to sniff out Dillon (6-foot, 250) on Saturday. The two figure to go head-to-head often in the season opener.
va. tech’s three keys to victory
1 Control Dillon: Boston College has one of the league’s bona fide stars in the senior running back, who led the ACC in rushing last year. Tech struggled mightily against the run in 2018. The Hokies believe they’re vastly improved this season. Dillon will show them how far they’ve actually come. Tech’s inexperienced defensive line has to stand up to the Eagles’ offensive front, and the Hokies linebackers and defensive backs can’t afford to miss tackles.
2 Beware the play action: With so much attention on Dillon and the Eagles running game, Tech’s young corners might be tempted to peek into the backfield. But BC has the ability to fake a handoff and throw down field, especially to Kobay White, one of the better receivers in the league.
3 Run the football: Boston College lost three starters off its defensive line. Whether it’s a veteran like Deshawn McClease or Jalen Holston or a rookie like true freshman Keshawn King, the Hokies should be able to get a running back in a groove against the Eagles’ rebuilt defensive front.