A week after unsuccessfully trying to stymie Florida State’s Jordan Travis, Boston College has the unenviable task of attempting to contain another versatile quarterback in Louisville’s Malik Cunningham.
The Eagles (1-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) host the Cardinals (2-2, 0-2) Saturday at noon in a battle to see who can escape from the cellar of a loaded Atlantic Division.
Cunningham, a true dual-threat QB, is racking up the second-most yards per carry (7.1) and yards per game (98.8) in the ACC. Though he’s averaging the second-fewest passing yards per game (195.5), BC coach Jeff Hafley made it clear Cunningham is fully capable of making plays with both his legs and his arm.
“I think he’s one of the most dynamic players in all of college football,” Hafley said.
While Hafley respects his arm, Cunningham is more of a threat when it comes to his running ability. Dual-threat QBs such as Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader, Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong, Travis, and Cunningham tend to give the Eagles fits more than traditional passers.
They’ve had mixed results against Louisville lately.
Two years ago, the Eagles overcame 135 rushing yards from Cunningham and pulled out a 34-27 win. Last season, in a 28-14 Louisville victory, the Eagles picked him off twice but he rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
After a poor performance tackling Travis, Trey Benson, and the rest of the Seminoles, bouncing back in that area is imperative. Hafley said the Eagles tackled high in that game, so they stressed the importance of fundamentals this week in practice.
“Are we a bad tackling team? No, we’re not,” Hafley said. “Did we have a bad tackling game? Yes, we did. That was the message we gave them.”
The Seminoles rushed for four TDs and Travis threw for 321 yards, but one bright spot was that the Eagles limited Travis on the ground. He was coming off a leg injury and was largely looking to pass, but even so, he had just one carry for 16 yards.
Cunningham isn’t as dynamic a passer as Travis, but he’s even more bouncy and shifty as a runner.
BC defensive end Marcus Valdez said there’s no easy way to defend Cunningham.
“With a guy like him, he’s going to make people miss,” Valdez said. “He’s probably one of the most elusive players in college football at any position. It’s about taking your shot instead of sitting down.”
The Cardinals are dangerous all over, with a “five-headed monster” featuring Cunningham and four running backs. Tight end Marshon Ford has had a relatively quiet year so far but is always a threat.
Hafley said the Cardinals like to run, run, run, and then try to take the top off. One way the Eagles can potentially combat their high-octane offense is by taking the ball away. Louisville has five fumbles and recovered just one.
“They do have that tendency,” Valdez said, “and we have done it in the past.”
The Eagles will be without powerful defensive end Shitta Sillah (shoulder) for the rest of the season. Linebacker Vinny DePalma, who had a game-high 11 tackles against the Seminoles, will be a key part of the equation once again.
BC is 8-1 under Hafley when totaling more rushing yards than the opponent and 5-12 when the opponent has the edge. The Eagles have shown progress stopping the run in stretches, but depth and consistency remain concerns.
Louisville is averaging the second-most yards per carry in the ACC (5.4). The Eagles have allowed the second-most rushing TDs (9) and third-fewest passing TDs (4), so it’s a tough matchup for an athletic but inconsistent defense.
There’s still time for the Eagles to turn their season around, but that won’t be the case much longer if the trend continues. This is a crucial matchup if they want to have any shot at making a bowl game.
The Eagles welcome Clemson to town next Saturday, then travel to Wake Forest, so this is a pivotal showdown.
Hafley said he hasn’t seen his players’ spirits change despite the disappointing start to the season. He credited the leaders on the roster for helping to keep everyone unified and motivated.
“You better move on,” Hafley said. “That’s life. If not, it’s going to beat you again.”
Trevor Hass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.