By Mike Shalin, Boston Herald
August 23, 2004
BOSTON For Boston College, the 2004 football season is clearly a case of first things first.
Before the Eagles can fly to the ACC — for the 2005-06 sports season, now that the judges have spoken and most financial matters have been worked out with the jilted Big East — there's the matter of the Eagles living life as Lame Ducks. There's a BCS spot up for grabs, and with perennial Big East powers Miami and Virginia Tech now in the ACC, BC has a chance to go out with a bang.
Someone has to win the Big East and take a BCS spot. It's a rule!
As I told the team, everybody keeps asking about the ACC, BC coach Tom O'Brien said recently, as his team opened August camp. We have to put that who knows? That's for another time or another place. My obligation is to the seniors on this football team. They have an opportunity to be a champion here in the Big East, and that's the league that we came into and that's the league that we're still in.
Every year, I challenge myself and the coaches to do a better job than we did a year ago, just as I challenge the team to be better than we were a year ago. That's our focus, to be a better football team and a better football program, and if this is the last year, then this is the last year, and we'll go out in a blaze of glory.
The Big East media tabbed West Virginia to win the league this year, and the Mountaineers 12-2 in the conference over the last two seasons have been picked as high as fifth in the country in the preseason hype. The media picked BC to finish second in the Big East, and the league title could come down to a Nov. 13 meeting between the two favorites in Morgantown.
As usual, O'Brien downplayed the preseason picks, saying, I don't think preseason polls mean much of anything. We'll know a heck of a lot more by the middle of October than we know now.
But both the coach and athletic director Gene DeFilippo acknowledged that the Big East is much more winnable with Miami and Virginia Tech gone.
Everybody realizes that with Miami and Virginia Tech out, everybody in the Big East's chances are better, DeFilippo said. I think everybody's thinking they have a better chance.
Over the last five years, BC went 40-22 overall, a record that would have ranked behind only Florida State (by a lot) and Maryland (barely) in the pre-expansion ACC. But if you subtract Miami and Virginia Tech from the equation (the Eagles upset Tech in Blacksburg to close out the 2003 regular season), BC was 39-13 in the same span. So, you can see why there's optimism in Chestnut Hill.
That Nov. 13 date on the BC calendar (tabbed by Sports Illustrated as a game to watch simply because that publication also recognizes someone has to win the Big East) is one that should see the Eagles facing a hostile home crowd on its way out of the Big East.
Last year, O'Brien's team, which went on to a fifth straight bowl and a fourth straight bowl win (the only team in the country with a current streak that long), heard it from the folks at Syracuse (complete with dollar bills thrown out of the upper deck at the Carrier Dome) and at Rutgers. BC will get more of the same this season, especially on its trips to Morgantown and Pittsburgh.
It doesn't matter, O'Brien said. They don't love us anywhere we go.
More than one BC player, in fact, has said he prefers playing on the road and being challenged by people saying nasty things. Many played at West Virginia two years ago, when batteries were thrown at them, long before anyone knew BC would be leaving the conference.
O'Brien opened camp in August with many questions to be answered, and much of the coaching staff's focus was on the offense and special teams. On the other side, the BC defense appears to be the deepest and most talented and athletic of the O'Brien era. Nevertheless, there's work to be done there as well.
That's college football, putting the puzzle together every year, O'Brien said. It changes every year, and that's what the challenge is. That's what makes college coaching great.
Officially, there was uncertainty as to whether Paul Peterson or Quinton Porter will be the quarterback when the Eagles open at Ball State on Sept. 2. Officially, O'Brien insisted in late August that the spot was still up for grabs, but all indications pointed to Peterson, who played well in the final three games of last season (capped by a San Francisco Bowl win) as the starter.
Under the Peterson plan, Porter will redshirt his way into an extra year and into the ACC and become the starter in 2005. Matt Ryan will be the backup to Peterson this season, and the redshirt plan will hold (with Porter going for a master's degree next year) as long as Peterson stays healthy this fall.
Peterson, who many felt should have been the starter throughout 2003, emerged in the second half of the Rutgers game to carry the Eagles to victory. He then engineered the wins at Virginia Tech and over Colorado State in the New Year's Eve bowl game. O'Brien was not only high on the way the junior college transfer played (48-for-79, 639 yards, six TDs, five interceptions) against quality competition, but by the fact that all three games were played away from Alumni Stadium.
With all-time school rushing leader Derrick Knight gone, the Eagles had four tailbacks including true freshman A.J. Brooks vying for the starting spot. The four have a total of six college carries among them, all by third-year sophomore Jeff Ross, who will battle Brooks and redshirt freshman L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callendar. Early scrimmages produced little in the way of an answer, but O'Brien said he'd have his mind made up by the last week of August.
Hopefully, one of the tailbacks will jump at us, O'Brien said.
On paper, Ross looked as if he would be the frontrunner, if only because he already had two years in the system.
The tailback will run behind a line that is younger than the famed ones of the past but still loaded with depth. This is the first time O'Brien hasn't had a senior up front. Last year's star blocker, Chris Snee, jumped directly into the New York Giants' starting lineup.
We're looking to put the right guys in the right spot, O'Brien said.
The coach also is looking to replace tight end Sean Ryan with Dave Kashetta and a backup from the group of junior Chris Miller, redshirt freshman Trey Koziel and sophomore Robert Ziminski, over from the defensive line. The tight ends will complement O'Brien's deepest and most experienced set of wide receivers, a group that was bolstered last year when defensive back Larry Lester moved to offense. Now Lester has a whole year under his belt, as he joins Grant Adams and Joel Hazard in the top three.
Speaking of the defense, All-America candidate Mathias Kiwanuka, one of three captains named at the start of camp, and cornerback Will Blackmon anchor a talented group. O'Brien said the linebacker situation beyond middle man Ray Henderson has to be settled. Much of how it is settled, of course, depends on how quickly super freshman Brian Toal, one of the most heralded signees ever at BC, shows he's ready.
After showing up at school and starting his first college season, Toal, who looked very good in the first fall scrimmage, revealed how close he came to changing his mind right on ESPN and going to Miami instead of BC. With his brother, former BC fullback Greg, and ex-BC tight end Rob Tardio working on him, Toal ignored the pleas of Miami coaches and ex-Hurricane and ex-NFL player Jim Burt and came to my senses.
Toal was one of at least three BC recruits (including the aforementioned Brooks) who noted the school's move to the ACC as a prime reason for deciding on the Eagles. Then, just after camp opened, BC reached into the heart of ACC country and grabbed highly rated Virginia offensive tackle Pat Sheil, in yet another sign that the move to the new league is paying off.
I've said all along, the ACC has a lot to do with (the kids coming in), O'Brien said. High school kids want to play in the best conferences.
Brooks, a Florida product who also had Wake Forest and Maryland chasing him, said, I was going to play in the ACC either way it went. I just wasn't sure of the school.
The Eagles lost both their punter and kicker and have freshmen vying for both spots. Mike Fassel is a returning kicker, but kicker Ryan Ohliger and punter Johnny Ayers (both 2004 scholarship newcomers) were brought in to become the starters. The kicking game will be boosted by the return of long snapper Francois Brochu, whose 2003 absence (wrist) caused major problems at times.
The Eagles will be playing their final year in the Big East on brand-new field turf, which was installed and ready for the opening of August practice. The field looks great, and there's a new football building going up behind the stadium that will house the team (and a BC Hall of Fame) beginning in March.
I've never sensed our fans more excited, DeFilippo said.
It may be tough for BC fans to get all that excited about this year's home schedule Penn State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rutgers and Syracuse but these hard-to-please folks have to be looking forward to next year's tentative ACC schedule, which has Florida State, Wake Forest, Virginia and N.C. State coming to The Heights.
Of course, as O'Brien said, that's the future, and there's still some work to be done. There's still a chance for the school's first Big East title, in its final year in the league.
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