Football, Top Story

In Home Opener, Football Throttles FCS Wagner

The faithful crowd in maroon and gold collectively held its breath.

Superfans flooded Brighton and Shea, firing up the grill as Alumni Stadium opened its doors for the first time in 2016. Though three weeks in, the conditions made for a perfect home opener: blue skies, crisp fall temperatures, and a bad FCS opponent.

But would it really be a perfect opener for Boston College football without a little stress?

Just three minutes into the game, Wagner—a team from the Division I-AA’s Northeast Conference, which went 1-11 last season but can boast wins against D-II St. Anselm and NAIA Concordia (Mich.) in 2016—took off. Seahawks quarterback Alex Thomson faked two handoffs, before the offensive line opened a perfect hole on the left. A missed, diving tackle and 55 yards later, Wagner had a 7-0 lead. The Eagles have had their fair share of bad moments in the past season, from Wake Forest in 2015 to Virginia Tech last week. But nothing would compare to the embarrassment of a home defeat to an FCS team.

Fortunately for everyone in Chestnut Hill, those fears were quickly destroyed by a BC running game that aims at a return to national prominence.

In total, the Eagles ran for 300 yards while stifling Wagner defensively for much of the remainder of Saturday. And for the first time since Sept. 26, 2015 against Northern Illinois, the faithful who purchased tickets to Alumni Stadium and students who ambled down the street—all 22,728 of them—went home happy, as the Eagles defeated the Seahawks, 42-10.

Running the ball was the game plan against Wagner, according to head coach Steve Addazio. He hasn’t been pleased with his team’s inability to establish balance in the offense early this season, and it starts with the ground game.

“We felt like we really haven’t run the ball well yet, up to what our standard is,” Addazio said. “So we wanted to emphasize running the ball today, and we did that.”

Immediately following that Thomson rushing touchdown, Jonathan Hilliman led a quick charge downfield. A 41-yard run to the left, with a hole opened by Aaron Monteiro, set up the Eagles (2-2, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) in the red zone. Shortly after, Hilliman sharply cut left for a two-yard scamper and a tie game. The redshirt sophomore continued that strong play on the subsequent drive, showing his strength when bowling over a Wagner (1-2) defender for a solid gain.

It’s the type of play that Hilliman expects to make week in and week out. Entering the day, Hilliman had 158 yards on 49 carries—a subpar 3.22 yards per attempt. Take out his 73-yard touchdown against Georgia Tech, and that figure drops to 1.77 yards per attempt. With his 92 yards on 19 carries, not to mention two touchdowns, Hilliman showed flashes of what he can do.

“I feel like those are things I’m supposed to do when the hole is that big,” Hilliman said of his offensive line.

On that drive, the Eagles quarterback finished the job. Patrick Towles nailed a 22-yard pass to Tommy Sweeney, before scrambling from 17 yards out to paydirt. On that play, Towles rolled out to the right. Without finding anyone open, Towles made a Wagner defender miss, before running back to the left. Once there, Monteiro and left guard Jim Cashman did the rest of the work. It’s not the kind of play that an ACC defense might allow. But against Wagner? Not a problem.

Wagner again gave BC a scare to enter the second quarter. Thomson again drove down the field with a scramble and a few good passes (helped by a silly hands to the face penalty by BC). That set up James Cooper for a 34-yard field goal.

But that would be the last time the Seahawks came even close to scoring.

On the ensuing drive, the Eagles attempted to run up the middle with Hilliman, to no avail. So Towles went to the air. He connected with Michael Walker on a fine, one-handed grab along the left sideline for 18 yards. That set up a perfect play-action pass on first down—a rarity for the Eagles—to Towles’ favorite target: Jeff Smith. The 58-yard grab was the longest of Smith’s short receiving career, and his third touchdown of over 30 yards this season.

With the Eagles pulling away, Addazio sent in a new face: Davon Jones. The St. John’s Shrewsbury product redshirted last season as a defensive back, but has since converted to running back. During summer ball, Addazio touted Jones as one of his secret weapons and as one of the fastest guys on the field.

What Addazio neglected to mention was his toughness. Jones appears most comfortable when hitting the circle button and spinning off defensive backs, or carrying linebackers for 10 yards at a time. He had 90 yards on only 12 attempts, including two of over 25 yards on the same drive. He helped set up a Towles diving touchdown that put BC up 28-10 at the half.

“We really like his future,” Addazio said. “He has great feet, he has great vision. He’s tough, he’s a really physical guy. It’s really hard to stop Davon for much less than four yards.

On the second drive of the third quarter, the Eagles fully separated themselves. Another strong return by Rouse—53 yards on a punt—set up Hilliman to dance in off the left for a six-yard touchdown.

Towles then went to the air in the third, particularly to Walker. The sophomore from Naples, Fla. showed off his soft shoes with another catch along the sidelines. Towles then threw a screen to the BC sideline, and Monteiro and Cashman gave Walker enough room to shuffle back to the cutback lane in middle of the field for a 27-yard score. It’s a play that Walker says he was tabbed with working on throughout the summer, and has finally clicked. With the help of that left side of the offensive line, Walker found the end zone for the first time in his career, a thrilling moment for the young receiver.

“It was amazing, like everything that everyone ever said it would be,” Walker said.

Of course, Addazio saw plenty of room for improvement. The Eagles had several silly penalties, and missed open throws on offense, which the head coach says may be due to the emphasis on the run game this week. Towles’ stats were a plus from last week—9-of-16 for 157 yards—but Addazio still felt there were yards left on the field.

“We wanted to force the issue a little bit today,” Addazio said of the ground game. “But we have to be consistent in the throw game.”

Most importantly, the Eagles were just happy to be back in Chestnut Hill. Between Dublin, Gillette Stadium, and Blacksburg, a 1-2 road trip, defensive end Harold Landry and Towles agreed that it’s all about just resettling in the home clubhouse and hearing the cheers of their own fans.

“It felt amazing to be back in front of our home crowd,” Landry said.

After a long three weeks, how sweet home is. Even against an FCS team.

Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor

September 24, 2016

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