Hawkeye defensive players brace for impact from Boston College battering ram AJ Dillon
NEW YORK — Iowa’s defensive players have seen AJ Dillon’s highlight clips.
They do not want to be the next man in them.
“If you watch the tape, he’s just tossing guys a couple times, nasty stiff-arms, things like that,” Hawkeye linebacker Ben Niemann said of the Boston College freshman sledgehammer he’s going to face in Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. “No shot do I want to be on that tape.”
This is what it will come down to when the game kicks off at 4:15 p.m. on ESPN: If Iowa wants to end its bowl losing streak at five games, it will need to stop a 240-pound bowling ball.
“We’ve faced physical backs and hard runners, but he’s probably the biggest guy we’ll have seen,” Niemann said. “We’ve just got to get multiple hats to him. We might have to hit him low or at the thigh boards sometimes. Just playing as physical as we can.”
Iowa has never faced Boston College in football before, so here’s the simple comparison for fans tuning in to see which 7-5 team will prevail: Think Wisconsin.
That’s what the Hawkeyes have been doing to prepare for the Eagles and a game expected to be played in the bitter cold hours just after the sun sets in the Bronx. Temperatures will be in the teens. That means running the football is likely to be the more effective option. For Boston College, it may be the only option.
More Pinstripe Bowl coverage:
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- Boston College without star defensive end for Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Iowa
- Pinstripe Bowl story lines: In Nate Stanley, Iowa has the QB edge vs. Boston College
“It’s going to be one of those old-school football games,” Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said, warming to the task.
“The biggest thing is to get movement on the line of scrimmage. (Dillon is) a very patient back, so to make sure we’re still in our proper gaps but also knocking them back to kind of shorten the playing field a little bit. … If he gets a chance, he’s going to lower his head and run you over.”
Dillon is a Connecticut native who chose Boston College over the likes of Notre Dame and Michigan. He did have an Iowa offer.
If Dillon wanted to go somewhere committed to the run, he couldn’t have found a better spot. The Eagles rushed the ball on 63 percent of their snaps this season.
Dillon started out slowly, breaking out with a 25-carry, 120-yard performance in his fifth game, a win over Central Michigan. Two weeks later, he broke Louisville’s back — 272 yards and four touchdowns in an upset victory on the road.
In the five games since, Dillon racked up 827 yards while averaging 5.9 per carry. The Eagles lost only one, against North Carolina State in a game that saw starting quarterback Anthony Brown go down with a season-ending injury.
Darius Wade is replacing Brown for the game against Iowa. He has passed for only two touchdowns this season.
So it will be a simple game plan the Iowa defense will face.
Boston College uses a lot of tight ends, even lining them up at fullback at times. Dillon is never a receiving option.
The Eagles will put big guys in front of him to try to open a crease, then watch him go to work. Dillon won’t be trying to dazzle anyone, although he is faster than you would expect a man of his size to be.
“A lot of these big backs today, they don’t have the type of speed that AJ has. He’s got great vision. He’s very natural,” Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said. “For being such a young kid, he’s done a lot of remarkable things already in his career. And he’ll continue to get better.”
The closest comparison Iowa defenders could find to Dillon was Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor, who is 26 pounds lighter. Taylor ran for 157 yards against the Hawkeyes in a 38-14 win last month.
“He runs hard, but at the same time he can put his foot in the ground, change directions, so it’s a good opportunity,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said of Dillon. “As long as everyone does their job, runs to the ball and reads their keys, I think we’re going to be all right.
“I don’t want to get trucked. But at the same time, as long as I get him down and keep him from getting a big run, that’s my job as a safety, as the last defense.”
Bazata, like Niemann a senior who will be wearing the Hawkeye uniform for the final time Wednesday, said there’s an extra motivation that comes from facing a running back like Dillon.
“He gets his extra yardage if the first guy there doesn’t wrap up, and he just squirts out,” Bazata said.
“(Defensive line) Coach (Kelvin) Bell always says, you don’t want to be on someone’s draft highlights. When you get your shots, you want to bring him down.”