September 13, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL -- Tom O'Brien came into this season knowing he would pass Joe Yukica and become the winningest coach in the history of the Boston College football program.
Needing two victories to tie and three to be No. 1, O'Brien obviously didn't know when it would happen. He clearly hoped to get the whole thing taken care of by week three, if, of course, you assume such things matter to this guy.
O'Brien had other things to be concerned about. He found himself in a search for leadership, with his stars gone and very little returning in the way of seniors. He wondered aloud about from where it was going to come.
Well, after two games, O'Brien already was tied with Yukica, and some of his questions already had been answered.
He saw his team go to Mount Pleasant, Mich., and almost blow a 31-10 lead before hanging on to beat Central Michigan. Then, in the home opener, his Eagles fell behind No. 18 Clemson 17-7 in the ACC opener, only to pull off one of the greatest wins in BC history.
Leaders? Who says they have to be seniors?
Not when you have junior quarterback Matt Ryan, who led his team to the improbable Clemson win after being listed as questionable until the day of the game with a sprained left ankle. Not when you have junior linebacker Jolonn Dunbar, who, at the end of a long, long afternoon into evening, threw his body in front of an extra-point attempt and blocked it, giving the Eagles a chance to win the game with a touchdown and extra point.
Great moments in BC history? Earlier in the same week, Wheaties gave Doug Flutie his own box, as a commemoration of his famous Hail Mary Pass against Miami in 1984. There was the incredible win at Notre Dame in 1993, followed by a home rout of the Irish the following season. There were other great ones, for sure, but none at home could have been much better than this.
This one came after BC players tapped their new bronze eagle, in what looked like a corny little thing aimed at creating some kind of new tradition at The Heights. Was anyone going to argue with the thing after what happened against Clemson?
"It seemed like it had some luck, you know, the way we won the game, it was a tight game," Dunbar said, after his block set up tailback L.V. Whitworth for the tying touchdown and Ryan Ohliger for the deciding extra point. "So, hopefully, we can go out there and tap the eagle every time we go out and have a little more luck."
With another home game (BYU) around the corner, it was clear how important this game was to BC.
The Eagles came into the season picked third in the Atlantic Division, behind Florida State and Clemson. By beating the Tigers -- for the second straight year, both in overtime -- before Clemson traveled to an FSU team that looked like anything but a BCS squad in the first two games of the season, BC put itself in position to do something special in its second year in the ACC.
Sure, there were question marks. There was that near-miss at Central Michigan. There was 490 yards gained by Clemson on the road. There was another shoulder injury to BC linebacker Brian Toal. There was Ryan's left ankle, which could be a problem all year.
But 2-0 -- and with a very good chance to start 3-0 for the second time in the last three years -- is a nice way to start.
"We don't do anything easy," O'Brien said. "We started off the game very slow and very tentative. We looked like we didn't have a chance. I give this football team a lot of credit. They hung in there and gutted it out."
That's the very thing O'Brien was looking for coming into the season, a team that could win even when it wasn't playing its best game.
For O'Brien, in his 10th season, the Clemson victory lifted his mark at BC to 68-42, and it was his first win over a ranked opponent at home.
O'Brien arrived at the school and took over a program that had been rocked by a gambling scandal. A former Marine, he came in and restored order. There was talk at one point that he was leaving for Georgia Tech, or for Washington, but neither worked out for him, so he stayed.
Now, 10 years in, he's made the BC program one you don't necessarily want to use as a steppingstone to a bigger job.
As usual, O'Brien has his Boston College team in position to do something in the conference. A loss to Clemson would have been tough to swallow in the long term. Sure, the schedule suggests that BC will be a bowl team for an eighth straight year, but the players, the brass -- and the fans -- want more.
The coach wasn't sure he could get it. He couldn't ignore the leadership that was gone, with all the vital players the Eagles lost, including three of the top 115 players in the NFL draft. But the win over Clemson changed a lot.
Along with O'Brien's, Ryan's BC legend continued to grow. He had his helmet knocked off by a David Dunham shot at Clemson last year, but he came back. As a backup quarterback playing for an injured starter that day, he led his team to its first ACC win, at Death Valley in overtime. He went on to win his other four starts as a sophomore.
Then, Ryan hurt his ankle in the first quarter at Central Michigan, but it didn't stop him from recording his first 300-yard passing game. He was doubtful up until game time against Clemson.
"(Ryan) woke up much better today, and once he got the adrenaline going, and looking at him in the pre-game, he didn't look as peg-legged as he had," O'Brien said. "He had a little more flexibility in his ankle. I knew if we had a chance to win, he was going to be it."
That's why they call the kid "Matty Ice." The win over Clemson was his seventh straight as a starter, raising him to 7-1 on his career. In those seven games, Ryan was 142-for-233 (61 percent) for 1,633 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. In the first two games this season, he was 54-for-86 (63 percent) for 535 yards, four scores and no picks. How's that for leadership?
And what about the play of freshman kick returner Jeff Smith? Called "the quickest player I've ever recruited" by O'Brien, Smith fumbled the opening kickoff against Clemson, leaving his team in bad field position. But he wound up the day with 213 yards on five returns, including a 96-yarder for a touchdown that tied the game 17-17.
"When he was streaking down the sideline for the touchdown run, one of the kids on the sideline turned to me and said, Good job recruiting him, Coach,'" O'Brien said. "He certainly made a difference in the football game."
BASKETBALL AGAIN SEEING ORANGE
It didn't come as much of a surprise, but BC recently announced that it will renew its series with old Big East rival Syracuse.
The teams agreed to an eight-game matchup, starting in 2010. BC hopes it can be a special kind of tradition game between the two old friends.
"We haven't set dates yet," BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo said. "But my preference would be to play it at the end of the year as the final game and make it an Eastern rivalry."
BC and Syracuse long have battled for talent in the Northeast. The Eagles hoped time would heal the wounds that followed BC's jump to the ACC, after Syracuse, originally slated to join BC, was snubbed.
"Time moves on," DeFilippo said, noting that a new AD (Daryl Gross) at Syracuse helped to change things.
The arrival of Syracuse on the schedule will help ease the loss of Notre Dame, which will end its series with BC after a scheduled game in 2010. The Eagles and Irish, the only two Catholic schools in Division I-A, will resume play after a two-year break this year and will play for four straight seasons.