October 25, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL -- In terms of overall importance and national visibility, there can be no bigger 10 days in the history of the Boston College football program than the Eagles' wild flight through mid-October.
First, playing at home under the Thursday night ESPN lights, BC manhandled Virginia Tech, a team that hadn't lost on the Thursday stage in 11 years. (The Hokies were beaten by the 1995 BC team in their only other Thursday loss.) Then, back in the Top 25 and wondering whether hobbling quarterback Matt Ryan would play, the Eagles went to Tallahassee and took control of their fate in the Atlantic Division with a 24-19 win over Florida State.
"We've beaten Clemson (home and away), and we've beaten Virginia Tech," junior linebacker Brian Toal said. "That makes us for real in this conference."
BC's fans, along with many of the Eagles' detractors (from the Big East), wondered about that very thing after they came into the new league. But in its second year in the ACC, BC, which tied for the
Atlantic title last year, is back at the top of its division.
With the victory at FSU, the battered and bruised defending champion that all but dropped out of the running for the ACC title game with the loss to BC, the Eagles had become a true player.
Granted, no one will ever say that these Virginia Tech and FSU teams are vintage to those programs, and it's clear that this is a weird -- OK, down -- year in the conference. But the door was open, and BC has stormed in.
With the win in Tallahassee, the Eagles can ensure themselves of a spot in the league title game by winning out. Clemson was actually in first place at the end of the day (Oct. 21), a half-game ahead of BC. But if both teams finish 7-1, BC would get the title shot because of its double-overtime win over the Tigers.
The Eagles, who were set for a breather (and a seventh win) against Buffalo on Oct. 28, still have Duke and Maryland at home, plus trips to Wake Forest and Miami (BC hasn't beaten the Hurricanes since Doug Flutie's famous Hail Mary), left on the schedule. Clemson, which recently hammered Georgia Tech and seems to be getting better every week, faces a Thursday matchup at Virginia Tech and home games against Maryland and N.C. State.
In other words, it's all there for the taking for a BC team that entered this season wondering where its leadership would come from, after losing three players who went in the top 115 picks of the NFL draft, as well as some other key veteran leaders.
The leadership in 2006 has come mostly from two juniors: Matt Ryan and Jolonn Dunbar. Before the season, they were selected as two of the three team captains. Ryan leads a fairly balanced, efficient offense. Dunbar directs a young defense, one that is playing what used to be kids all over the depth chart.
Talking about Ryan after the win at FSU, BC coach Tom O'Brien, whose team qualified for an eighth straight bowl game with the win in Tallahassee, said, "He's our offense. He's the focal point of everything. As long as he can play, there's not a quarterback in the conference I've seen that's better than him."
All-ACC quarterback seems like a good bet for Ryan. What about player of the year honors? Through Oct. 21, no one had meant more to his team.
Dunbar, who blocked the extra point that led to the win over Clemson, was leading a defense that played so much of the season without Toal, the consensus pick on the BC defense for league honors. Dunbar set an early tone at FSU, then led his team with seven tackles.
Cornerback Larry Anam, whose last-second interception ended the win at FSU, had the quote of the day when he said, "I'm speechless. I grew up in Africa. I never knew about football until my sophomore year in high school. But the first things I learned about football were Miami and Florida State. So, for me, being a fifth-year guy and then coming up with this interception, I couldn't write a better script."
By the way, the victory, in front of 83,043, added another huge road win to O'Brien's résumé. (Is that another reason his name is being whispered for the Miami job?) Since the start of 2002, BC has won twice at Notre Dame, before 106,445 at Penn State, at Clemson, at Virginia Tech, at West Virginia. The Eagles beat Notre Dame's green shirts and now FSU's black.
BASKETBALL: QUESTIONS, ANSWERS
Trying to replace people such as second-round NBA draft pick Craig Smith and Louis Hinnant, against a tougher-than-usual early schedule, might make things a bit tough for the BC basketball team.
The Eagles opened practice in mid-October, looking to answer key questions.
At the top of the list was junior center Sean Williams. Renowned as a defender, Williams, who missed half of last season while under suspension, has to give coach Al Skinner some offense to help offset the loss of inside presence Smith and take some pressure off senior forward Jared Dudley.
That's not the only question for the Eagles, who will host Michigan State and Maryland and go to Kansas before Christmas. BC also will face road games against local rivals Providence (young, but playing at home) and much-improved Massachusetts.
Among the others: Can senior guard Sean Marshall improve five points or so per contest and become a legitimate 15-point scorer who can come through at the end of close games? Is there a backup point guard, in case sophomore Tyrese Rice goes down or just needs a rest? How much will the freshmen contribute? Which one (forward Shamari Spears is the favorite) will be ready right away?
Meanwhile, the coaching staff took its first multiple hits when associate coach Bill Coen got the top job at Northeastern and assistant Ed Cooley took the reins at Fairfield.
"They'll be fine," said Cooley, who still speaks regularly with his old colleagues. "You know Al's gonna find a way to get it done. He always does."
Assistant Pat Duquette, who moved up the ladder to the top assistant spot, said, "It's going to be a different team, and it's gotta come from a lot of different players."
Finally, BC already knows whom it will be getting from the Class of 2007. By securing a recent commitment from combo guard Biko Paris, a Hurricane Katrina victim now living in Houston, the Eagles have their five-man class -- "a little bit of everything," Duquette said-- already wrapped up. That's a very early finish for BC, which has done lots of spring shopping during Skinner's tenure.