“I think they did everything that we expected them to do. We just didn’t execute.” -Harold Landry
Boston College football’s offense opened on Friday night the same way it has much of the year: A short play-action pass here, a run up the gut there, but, ultimately, a three-and-out that leads to a Mike Knoll punt.
But this time would be different. The Eagles, who have worked so diligently to perfect their special teams throughout practice this week, caught a break. Ray-Ray McCloud called for a fair catch, but allowed it to slip right through his fingers. The ball barely squirted behind McCloud, but a sea of Eagles were ready. John Johnson pounced on the ball, giving BC a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Against Clemson, the No. 3 team in the nation, it was the kind of special-teams swing the Eagles needed to pull off an upset.
Here's another look at the muffed punt that gifted BC with great field position: pic.twitter.com/dLgsZBWP15
— Riley Overend (@Riley_IJ) October 7, 2016
Raucous cheers burst out from a student section decked out in maroon and gold, with the perfect hint of red for this year’s Red Bandanna Game, in honor of Sept. 11 hero Welles Crowther, BC ’99. Dreams of winning for Welles, just like BC did two years ago, 37-31, against then-No. 9 Southern California, drifted through Alumni Stadium on a perfect October Friday evening. Once again, students could rush the field and cheer alongside head coach Steve Addazio and a parade of proud Eagles.
Those dreams never came. Neither did the roar of the crowd. Well, not from those wearing bandannas, at least.
Defensively, BC, a team that entered No. 1 in the nation in yards per game, got burned by Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, and the Clemson offense for 499 yards. Several of those came on plays of over 40 yards. And as its defense collapsed, BC’s offense had no response. Turnovers and ineffectiveness plagued the Eagles throughout the night on their way to a 56-10 loss. It is the 11th consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference loss for the Eagles, who are without one since Nov. 29, 2014. The 56 points are the most the Eagles have allowed in the Addazio era.
The Eagles (3-3, 0-3 Atlantic Coast) controlled the ball throughout the game against the Tigers (6-0, 3-0). Addazio’s run-heavy offense outpaced Dabo Swinney’s fast-paced spread, 38:08 to 21:52. Yet, when they sniffed the end zone, they rarely executed.
Early in the second half, quarterback Patrick Towles led BC on an effective drive from its own 19-yard line. Towles threw two passes—one for five yards to Michael Walker, another for 22 to Tommy Sweeney—for first downs. Davon Jones, a redshirt-freshman running back and No. 2 on BC’s depth chart, gained 16 yards on the ground. Jeff Smith tacked on a 26-yard double-reverse run, too. And down only a couple of touchdowns, BC had an opportunity to get back into it.
But there is something about drives within the one that has had BC fans squirming in the last two seasons.
Towles attempted a QB sneak on 3rd-and-1, but was stopped just short. It was a hard play to make, considering center Jon Baker exited the game with an ankle injury. Jim Cashman, his replacement, had rarely played at the position. Addazio has stated that the biggest thing the Eagles need to do is remain healthy. Losing Baker, he said, was an absolute killer.
“He could not go into the game [after the injury],” Addazio said. “He couldn’t push off it or anything else. You know, you’ve got a lot of fears. One of my fears was losing that guy, and that happened.”
But, instead of dropping back into the huddle, the Eagles opted to hurry up. Towles fumbled the snap, eliciting a different kind of sound from the student section.
Fortunately for the Eagles, they received new life on a Clemson offsides. They responded by running the same play up the middle. Both failed, causing a turnover on downs. At 6-foot-5, Towles was sure he had a score on his first attempt. On his second, he knew the errors were no one’s but his own.
“The first one, I thought I did [get in there],” Towles said. “The next one, we had a new center, and I have to do a better job at getting the snaps. That’s my fault.”
It was the first of two turnovers caused by Towles. The second came on BC’s first real two-minute drill of the season. Down 18, the Eagles got the ball back at their 31-yard line. Tyler Rouse ran for 17 yards, and Towles threw two 10+ yard passes to Sweeney and Jones. On Clemson’s 23-yard line with under a minute remaining, the Eagles had an opportunity to jump back in the game.
It was, again, a dream that never came to be.
Unable to find an open receiver, Towles attempted to scramble on a 1st-and-10. He got hit by Clemson star linebacker Ben Boulware, a tackle that made Towles’s head snap back. The play made Towles fumble the ball, his fourth lost fumble in six games. Afterward, he recognized the importance of holding the ball better.
Initially, the referees bailed Towles out. They called Boulware on a targeting penalty, meaning 15 yards and an ejection. On further review, however, Boulware had not hit Towles in the head, but rather pushed him with two hands in the shoulder pads. The play was overturned, keeping Boulware in the game and giving Clemson the ball. Addazio, though visibly distraught in the moment, recognized that questioning the refs’ decisions now would be futile, even if he disagreed with some calls throughout the game.
“All I can tell you is what flashed in front of my eyes,” Addazio said. “I can’t speak to it. I wasn’t close enough to see it. I’m not going to speak to all the officiating things that went on in the game, I’m just not going to do it. There’s too many for me to even count right now to be honest with you, okay.”
Meanwhile, that BC defense that averaged 202 yards allowed per game—again, fewest in the nation—had no response for the might of Watson, a Heisman Trophy front-runner, and Gallman, one of the nation’s best runners.
Immediately after the fumble drive, Watson completed three passes before handing the ball off to Gallman. The Eagles had it caged, but Ty Schwab missed the initial tackle before Gallman bounced back to the perimeter and outran BC’s defense for 59 yards and a score.
— Riley Overend (@Riley_IJ) October 7, 2016
BC’s response: a first down, then a seven-yard loss.
On Clemson’s following drive, Watson took to the air. He placed a superb pass over the head of Isaac Yiadom, right into the hands of a diving Mike Williams. That pass set Clemson up within BC’s red zone, where Watson again went to the air. He aimed for Williams once more. This time, Williams leapt high over Gabriel McClary, who had no idea the ball was coming until the referees raised their hands for a score.
— Riley Overend (@Riley_IJ) October 8, 2016
BC’s response: a three-and-out.
A short punt gave Clemson the ball on BC’s 46-yard line. The fast pace got even faster. Like, one play kind of fast.
Clemson’s Jordan Leggett found a hole over the middle of the field, with no maroon and gold in sight. Watson saw the opening too, and Leggett dashed through the middle of the field. McClary, John Johnson, and Kamrin Moore all had a chance to tackle the tight end. Each one missed him.
— Riley Overend (@Riley_IJ) October 8, 2016
“Those three plays were costly right there,” Addazio said.
Still, the Eagles could have mounted a comeback in the second half. A 21-3 deficit isn’t completely insurmountable (for most offenses, at least). But the Tigers never took their feet off the pedal. Watson tossed another two touchdowns, of 29 and 16 yards to Deon Cain, both with McClary covering. He finished the day throwing 14 of 24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns. Addazio repeated after the game that his secondary had good coverage on some plays, but when it mattered most to get off the field, the Eagles couldn’t execute.
“We were trying to mix and match it—some man, some zone, some man, some zone,” Addazio said. “I thought we did a good job with that, but in the process, we let up too many big plays.”
Despite a Towles touchdown pass to his fullback, Bobby Wolford, Swinney went to his backups in the fourth. Gallman, who rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, gave way to his two backups: Tavien Feaster and Tyshon Dye. Each added touchdowns of their own. Mark Fields capped it off with a 42-yard interception return on a Darius Wade pass.
There are a lot of plays for Addazio to digest throughout the game. They’ll have two weeks to fix them with the bye on the horizon before a visit from Syracuse.
But if he wants to dissect anything, he should start on that first offensive possession. That fumble—a huge, momentum-shifting play on special teams—turned into only a 24-yard field goal from Knoll. Instead of applying the pressure early, the Eagles got a consolation prize.
It was the first sign of many to come that dreams of an upset would soon turn into nightmares of reality.