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Five Things Learned: Boston College 23, Northern Illinois 20

With the way the defense played, the game didn't HAVE to come to down a field goal.

Boston College v Northern Illinois Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When the clock struck midnight, Northern Illinois fell to 0-1 and Boston College won its road opener. A win and a loss are black-and-white, but the game was up for grabs during the entire 3.5-hour production. The Huskies lost to the Eagles on a potential game-tying field goal in the game's final minute. It was the opener for both programs involved, so here is what we know so far about the former MAC power and Steve Addazio's squad up north:

Both defenses are incredible

Boston College picked up from where it left off in 2016, a year when the Eagles fielded the eighth-best yards per game defense in the nation. The Eagles were relentless all game, only showing major faults on the Huskies' two-play, 75-yard drive that finished on the first play of the second quarter. Boston College gained 339 yards, while the Huskies managed to accumulate 367. The game featured 17 punts, and Boston College punted for more yards (348) than it gained.

Both teams wrapped up and showed excellent form on tackling. Boston College often dominated on the perimeter and Northern Illinois frequently penetrated the backfield to stop runs in the center of the field. The Huskies' defense may have even outplayed the Eagles' elite defense in DeKalb, limiting running back Jon Hilliman to 2.3 yards per carry on 25 attempts. Meanwhile, Boston College's freshman quarterback Anthony Brown launched 42 attempts but only achieved 191 yards through the air in his first game of action in his career. What was most impressive about NIU's defense is that they held their ground despite losing several players — cornerback Shawun Lurry, inside linebacker Kyle Pugh, and safety Trequan Smith — due to injury at points in the game. Rod Carey's defense forced six three-and-outs including four in the game's final 18 minutes.

The most impressive Huskie defender was sophomore defensive end Sutton Smith. Friday was Smith's coming out party, totaling four tackles for loss in the first half alone. He constantly shed off blockers and served as Northern Illinois' star run stopper and pass rusher in an overall quality defensive performance.

For Boston College, the defense limited the offense in key situations, including the Huskies' 1st-and-10 opportunity from the Eagles' 11-yard line. Had the Huskies scored a touchdown, they would have finished with at least 24 points — enough to win. Defensive end Harold Landry had his bright spots, aggressively wrapping up Jordan Huff and other Huskie ball carriers as they attempted to outrun the Eagles to the sideline.

The NIU offensive line held its own

Despite the Boston College defense effectively stopping Northern Illinois' run game, the Huskie offensive line looked sharp when protecting junior quarterback Ryan Graham. Graham, partly by his ability to scramble in the backfield, rarely faced intense pressure on passes and was able to earn open-field looks on several passes. The offensive line, led by junior left tackle Max Scharping, did not allow a single sack in the contest. Scharping, a former right tackle, played his first game on the left side of the line and proved why he is one of the conference's top offensive linemen. A future NFL Draft prospect like Landry even struggled against the Huskies' offensive line in attacking Graham on passing plays.

Third down play-calling is flawed

When a team converts just two of 15 third downs and only loses by three, that should raise red flags among the coaching staff. Northern Illinois' defense performed its part all game, limiting Boston College to just two touchdowns, while providing the offense countless opportunities to light up the scoreboard. However, the offense usually failed on vital third down situations. One common play Northern Illinois called throughout the game involved Graham lobbing a fade route to the sideline. Unfortunately for the Huskies, this play only worked once, when Graham under threw Chad Beebe and Beebe compensated to gain 46 yards on NIU's final scoring possession. Most of these plays ended up in uncatchable overthrows to the sideline.

Northern Illinois questionably ran on several third-and-long situations, including the opportunity on the team's final possession. The Huskies would convert on fourth down, but deferred the ball to Graham on third down. Graham gained just two yards on the play, another example of the rushing game failing on third down.

An earlier possession for the Huskies began on Boston College's 44-yard line, with the game knotted up at 20. Facing 3rd-and-1, Graham fired the ball deep down the sideline to Christian Blake rather than punch it up the gut. On the ensuing fourth down, NIU attempted a jet sweep to receiver Chad Beebe, who was brought down in the backfield. Northern Illinois runs an offense almost exclusively out of shotgun and loves bouncing the ball out to the perimeter on runs. However, in short yardage situations like these, a simple quarterback sneak or halfback dive to Jordan Huff may have proved more effective.

Graham must improve passing

Friday night was a perfect night for Rod Carey to experiment with his offense. The defense provided numerous chances at scoring and Northern Illinois had plenty of time to figure things out on the offensive side of the football. Ryan Graham showed improvement as a runner, rushing for 99 yards (60 on just one run late in the first quarter) on 12 attempts. But for Graham to keep his starting job, he must work on passing. He doesn't have to be Patrick Mahomes or Luke Falk, but he needs to make simple down the field throws to keep Northern Illinois' offense versatile.

As mentioned earlier, the deep ball is not Graham's forte. Additionally, Northern Illinois' receivers struggled running routes to suit Graham's throws. As a passer, the junior quarterback succeeds best on the rollout, finding receivers running crossing patterns or out routes to the sideline. Instead of the deep ball, Northern Illinois must call these passes more often to keep the offense in rhythm and force opposing defenses to focus on the passing game instead of just keying on the run.

Graham finished 15-of-38 for 190 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on a deep ball down the right sideline. Completing passes below the 40% mark is alarming and Graham must establish better connection with his receivers in order for NIU to start collecting victories.

The special teams played in favor of Boston College

Boston College junior kicker Colton Lichtenberg entered DeKalb 3-of-8 on career field goal attempts. But he played the role of the hero in Boston College's victory, connecting on tries from 42, 35, and 37 yards. Northern Illinois' kicker Christian Hagan finished 2-of-3, succeeding on chip shot attempts from 32 and 21 yards out, but missing the game-tying kick from 39.

In the punting department, field position often favored Boston College. The Eagles' punter Mike Knoll finished with four punts inside the 20, compared to Huskies' freshman Matt Ference's one. Boston College amassed 92 total return yards on five attempts, while Northern Illinois managed 65 on six.

The most famous play from this game will be Hagan's tipped field goal from 39 yards out, but Northern Illinois failed to win the special teams battle throughout the game's entirety.