Football, Top Story

Boston College Defense Keeps Postseason Hopes Alive in Shutout of Connecticut

On Saturday, Connecticut fans were left wondering what could have been.

Like Massachusetts before it, Connecticut marched into Alumni Stadium with wild hopes of an upset. After being passed over for several Power Five conference berths, a loss for the Huskies was not an option—Connecticut needed to assert its dominance in New England. It needed to prove its detractors that elevating others to the big-boy ranks was a mistake, that there is a legitimate rivalry, unlike Bob Diaco’s fictionally constructed Civil ConFLiCT.

Yet Boston College football wouldn’t have any of it. The Eagles are on a mission of their own, to return to a bowl game. And they may have done just barely enough to do it.

On a day to honor 17 seniors and, more importantly, the jersey retirement of legendary BC quarterback Matt Ryan, it was the Eagles’ defense that did their part, holding the Huskies to just 121 total yards. The much-maligned BC offense took advantage of constant short fields to pull away from Connecticut in a 30-0 final. The victory is the fifth of the year for the Eagles, with only a matchup on the road against Wake Forest remaining. Head coach Steve Addazio was no stranger to the importance of this win and what his team needed to do.

“That’s the look of a team that’s still fighting hard for every inch right now,” Addazio said.

In the first quarter, the Eagles (5-6, 1-6 Atlantic Coast) and Huskies (3-8, 1-6 American Athletic) matched one another step-for-step in ineptitude. Both sides traded short drives that ended in punts. By the second, the Eagles finally got some momentum by switching up their offensive strategy. Diaco’s run defense entered the day ranked 34th in the nation. But passing-wise, the Huskies sit at 119th with 283 yards allowed per game.

So the Eagles mixed runs to the edge with passing attempts. Addazio used Jeff Smith out of the Wildcat package for a couple of long runs, with swing routes to Myles Willis and Jonathan Hilliman. Yet on 4th-and-3 deep from the UConn 23-yard line, Addazio took a chance to go for it.

“I see Mike [Knoll]’s range, and that was messing with his range right there,” Addazio said. “We had that little feel of confidence in there in Pat throwing the ball.”

Towles returned the favor. As UConn sent rushers at the tackles to collapse the pocket from the outside in, Towles found a seam up the middle for a 16-yard gain. Three players later, Davon Jones dove into the end zone for BC’s first touchdown of the day.

Connecticut nearly prevented a full-on momentum swing. Quarterback Donovan Williams found some soft spots in the BC secondary, completing two long passes that put the Huskies in the red zone. Yet a poor decision by Williams to force a pass to running back Arkeel Newsome gave UConn a 4th-and-18.

His back against the wall, Diaco reached into his bag of tricks. He didn’t find anything useful.

Instead of a field goal attempt, Diaco chose to have his kicker attempt a pass. It nearly landed into the hands of a receiver, yet the questionable decision squandered Connecticut’s only legitimate chance at a score.

The Eagles immediately responded with a concoction of Davon Jones runs and short passes to Smith. Another time-consuming, multi-play drive led to a 35-yard field goal by Mike Knoll and a 10-0 lead.

To open the third, the offense went back to that same strategy, primarily with Michael Walker. Walker caught all four of his passes for 45 yards on that drive, ending in a leaping touchdown over defensive back Junior Joseph. It was, without question, the most efficient and balanced drive of the year for BC in a game in which Towles was better than he has been all year—at least in the eyes of his coach.

“I thought our quarterback played extremely well today,” Addazio said. “He played his best game at Boston College for sure, and that was critically important.”

Following a Mike Knoll 24-yard field goal, the seniors helped to seal the deal. Desperate for any offense, Diaco forced Williams into an air raid. That strategy did lead to a touchdown pass, just in the opposite direction. Midway through the fourth quarter, Matt Milano picked off Williams, easily prancing into the end zone for the score. For him, it was a special moment to clinch it on Senior Day.

“That was my first interception, and it was great,” Milano said. “It was a great feeling, and to return it for a touchdown was just icing on the cake.”

To the surprise of many across the nation, BC faces a rejuvenated reality. The 2016 season has been unsatisfying for many BC die-hards. After last year’s 3-9, ACC-winless debacle, Addazio had one starting goal: get back to six wins, get back to a bowl. It seemed unlikely for much of the year. The team was blown out 202-24 by four of the ACC’s elites. It had two victories snatched away by poor play and a 4th-and-19. It has caused uproar among fans, both students with angry signs in windows in 90 St.Thomas More Rd. or Vanderslice, to alumni angrily protesting on Twitter.

But, like it or not, the Eagles have done their part to achieve it. They dominated their non-conference schedule, one which was touted as the easiest in the country, with a 4-0 record. They stole an ACC win against North Carolina State on the road.

That might just be enough to clinch a postseason berth. The Eagles will have a chance to get to six wins in Winston-Salem, N.C., next week against Wake Forest, in a rematch of last year’s 3-0 debacle. Even if the Eagles don’t hit that mark, they may have a chance to make it at 5-7. The tiebreaker? Academic progress rate. BC is one of the top-five teams in the country in that category. Either way, Addazio and the Eagles are prepared to accept the challenge regardless of the frustrations of this year.

“This has been a year that we haven’t been able to build any momentum or confidence, it’s just the way it’s fallen, and it’s on me,” Addazio said. “Now we’re able to get back and get a little momentum and a little confidence … and play Wake Forest to have a chance to get our sixth win.”

So despite the discontent directed at this program—much of it justified—the Eagles have almost completed the slow inch toward their goal: bowl eligibility.  And after a season like this, Saturday’s win will make BC fans wonder what soon can—and will—be.

Featured Image by Josh Mentzer / Heights Staff

Gallery by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor | Josh Mentzer / Heights Staff

November 19, 2016

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