Penn State is completing its first season under coach James Franklin and Boston College is wrapping up its second year under Steve Addazio. Though those two paragons of traditional Eastern football have lost some luster in recent years, their Pinstripe Bowl matchup Saturday evening at Yankee Stadium is a portent of better days ahead.
The Nittany Lions (6-6) struggled to overcome depth problems related to a harsh reduction in scholarships because of sanctions emanating from the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal three years ago. But they still boast the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation (84.8 yards per game), led by All-American linebacker Mike Hull.
Their strength will be pitted against the rushing attack of Boston College (7-5), which ranks 13th in the country (251.8 yards per game) behind an offensive line with five graduate-year starters. Quarterback Tyler Murphy is the key with 1,079 yards on the ground and 10 rushing touchdowns (plus 1,526 yards passing and 11 touchdowns through the air), and running back Jon Hilliman has 712 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
"Our defensive line has played extremely well," Franklin said. "We've done a good job of stopping the run. I think that's going to be a focal point of the game -- their O-line versus our D-line. It's going to be a battle all day long."
The challenge for the Eagles' defense is a different one against Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who passed for 217.2 yards per game but threw only eight touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. He spent much of his time scrambling behind a young offensive line that allowed 42 sacks.
"We're facing a pro-style, dropback quarterback who has a tremendous arm and is a very accurate passer," Addazio said. "We have to play well in coverage; we have to pressure -- whether it be four-man, five-man, six-man pressures."
Despite their middling records, Penn State and BC showed flashes of potential in near upsets of two of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Eagles lost at No. 3 Florida State, 20-17, on a field goal with three seconds left. The Nittany Lions took No. 4 Ohio State to double overtime in a 31-24 home loss.
"There are no moral victories," Franklin said. "But I do think it illustrated how close we are."
Reflecting on BC's close call against defending national champion FSU, Addazio said: "We took no solace in being close in that game. We went down to win, and we're going to go down there and win in the future."
That road for both schools starts Saturday at Yankee Stadium.