“Going to bowl games are great, and I’ll never take that for granted. But winning a bowl game is the next level.” -Patrick Towles
DETROIT — Steve Addazio has a strict plan to victory. There are several steps, but at its core, it’s this: control both lines of scrimmage, dominate defensively, run the ball a lot, and sprinkle in some trickery. In Addazio’s first two years at Boston College, the team showed it a couple of times, thanks to Tyler Murphy and Andre Williams. But ever since 2015, when Addazio’s recruits became his starters, that strategy was often promised, but rarely seen.
In a post-Christmas Day present to BC fans everywhere, Addazio finally delivered. For 30 minutes, at least.
With a wild first-half display, the Eagles displayed everything Addazio preaches that his program should do, both on offense and defense. They put the quarterback on the turf consistently. They ran the ball up the middle with aplomb. And they took a bunch of risks with solid play calls. Despite an even crazier second half that featured long Terrapins touchdowns, turnovers, arguably the craziest defensive stand in program history, and clock management similar to the Georgia Tech game, the cushion was just big enough to help BC do something it hasn’t done in quite some time: win in December.
At last, the curse comes to an end at Ford Field. The Eagles have won a bowl game, their first since 2007, thanks to an offensive explosion in the first half and eight sacks, a team single-game record. With a 36-30 victory over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl, the Eagles salvage their third victory against a Power Five team in 2016. And a season that seemed hopelessly as early as Week Three will finish with a winning record. (Barely.)
The Eagles (7-6, 2-6 Atlantic Coast) began their day in atypical fashion, allowing Patrick Towles to move the ball through the air against Maryland (6-7, 3-6 Big Ten). Ray Smith, who played his first game since getting a concussion prior to Florida State on Nov. 11, sacked Maryland quarterback Perry Hills for a 10-yard loss. That play set up a short field, allowing Addazio to let his first key to winning begin: crack the rock. Throughout the year, the Eagles haven’t done that effectively—entering the day, they averaged a mere 3.4 yards per attempt.
Yet the month’s worth of rest paid off for Jonathan Hilliman. His redshirt sophomore season has failed to match the success of a thrilling freshman campaign. But that didn’t stop Addazio from trusting his former four-star running back.
Hilliman marched down the short field for 37 of BC’s 51 yards. After his first goal-line attempt was ruled down at the one, he pounded it home on a pitch two plays later to give BC a 6-0 lead (Mike Knoll’s extra point was blocked). After sacks by Zach Allen and Matt Milano kept Maryland from flipping the field, Hilliman led the march again. Three runs, plus a Towles keeper on fourth down, set up a slant to Tommy Sweeney for 24 yards. With a couple more runs, Addazio pulled out an old trick—the play BC ran against North Carolina State for the two-point conversion after Davon Jones’s touchdown. As Towles, Jeff Smith, and the offensive line drew the Terps’ defense right, Sweeney was all alone on the left. Towles dumped it off to him from one yard out for the touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
Then the defense got its chance to create some havoc. With over 100 family and friends in attendance from nearby Middleburg Heights, Ohio donning No. 93 shirts, Kevin Kavalec came up with his first big play of the day. He pulled down Hills with one hand, knocking out the ball with the other. That fumble was recovered by Truman Gutapfel, setting up a 22-yard field goal by Knoll.
The Eagles couldn’t keep down the big-play ability for Ty Johnson the whole game. The sophomore running back known for his long runs broke free from BC’s secondary for a 62-yard scamper down his own sideline. On Maryland’s ensuing drive, he’d get a 30-yard touchdown run that would be followed by a missed two-point conversion. His big-play ability has been the saving grace for Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin, especially after his fellow running back, Lorenzo Harrison, was suspended back in November.
“I don’t know what he’ll end up in yards per carry, but if it’s not a record, it’s close to one,” Durkin said.
Instead of folding and losing grip on that momentum, Addazio dug deeper into his bag of tricks. Following the first Johnson touchdown, Addazio unleashed Myles Willis for a 31-yard run. Three plays later, the Eagles broke out a play they tried against Florida State back in 2014. Towles handed the ball off to Michael Walker in motion to the left. Walker pitched it back to Jeff Smith, who found Towles all alone for a touchdown reception. The catch made Towles the first player in the ACC to throw and catch a touchdown in the same bowl game since Anquan Boldin in 2003.
“I think we’ve practiced it since Week Three,” Towles said of the play. “We started doing a lot of no-huddle stuff, and through Coach Loeffler, we were able to see we got the right look for that.”
Though the Eagles didn’t convert after a thrilling one-handed interception by Harold Landry, they made up for it by doing something Addazio never does: go for it with under two minutes left. Starting from his own 30, Towles spread the offense out. He tossed a 21-yard pass to Charlie Callinan toward the BC sideline to stop the clock. On the next play, he lofted a 49-yard throw to Michael Walker for a touchdown. Two plays, 70 yards—all through the air—and a 29-13 lead heading into the locker room. It was the most points BC has scored against a Power Five team in the first half since Oct. 17, 2009 against North Carolina State.
More importantly, that drive represented a new BC offense, if only for a few moments. It’s one that emphasizes a no-huddle attack and a willingness to let the run set up the deep throw. According to Addazio, regardless of who is at quarterback next year, expect that as the new norm.
“We wanted to spread the field and get in the quick game,” Addazio said, noting that his team has now gotten close to nailing the fundamentals. “I finally thought where we had built enough that we could finally worked ahead to get this done.”
To open the half, it looked like the Eagles were finally prepared to pull away in a game for the first time all season. Pinning Maryland within its 10-yard line, Noa Merritt applied heavy pressure, knocking the ball out of Johnson’s hands on the goal line. Kavalec pounced on it in the end zone. For a man playing in his final game on the Heights, to score in front of his family meant everything.
“Some people want it, I had to have it,” Kavalec said.
Yet soon, the Stockholm Syndrome set in. The up-tempo, swarming Eagles, both offensively and defensively, turned back into a sputtering offense and a secondary that got burned 202-24 by the ACC’s top teams. On back-to-back drives in the third quarter, BC allowed two long touchdowns: the first, a 63-yard reception to Teldrick Morgan, who broke away easily from Will Harris; the second a 52-yard catch by Levern Jacobs that split Mehdi El Attrach and John Johnson. And to make matters worse for the Eagles, Knoll missed a 38-yard field goal set up by a Willis 43-yard run. Suddenly, a dominating 36-13 lead at the start of the half quickly turned into a 36-27 nailbiter, with a whole quarter left on the clock.
So BC did what it does best. It rode its defense to victory—but it took a whole quarter of saying “That’s the play of the game” for it to happen.
The first came after Johnson busted free for a 61-yard run that, after further review, was cut down to only 29 yards. BC’s defense forced a 4th-and-1. The Eagles loaded the box in front of Hills over center, with Kenneth Goins, Jr. in one-on-one coverage with Isaac Yiadom. Hills mishandled the snap, but ducked under two BC defensive linemen. He pitched it out to Goins, Jr., but the running back couldn’t handle Yiadom in full stride. He made the tackle, forcing a fumble recovery for a touchdown that was later overturned. Durkin believed that was the game’s most important moment.
“The flip play to Kenny, if we don’t fumble that snap, that’s probably a touchdown,” Durkin said.
Yet the Eagles couldn’t close. Darnell Savage, Jr. picked off a Towles pass that was tipped by Jermaine Carter, Jr. and Hills threw a screen that turned into a 1st-and-goal at the two-yard line.
Then came the craziest 10-play sequence you’ll ever see.
Two holds and a sack by Landry quickly pushed it back to a 3rd-and-27. But Allen was called for a facemask, giving the Terrapins a fresh set of downs. A run by D.J. Moore again set up another 1st-and-goal, this time from the half-yard line. But Hills fumbled the snap again, only for it to be recovered by Milano.
“There were a lot of guys besides the normal guys you see making plays,” Addazio said of his defensive line. “Coach [Paul] Pasqualoni has done as good a job as I’ve ever seen in the development of a position group.”
It’s the kind of sequence that former defensive coordinator Don Brown would’ve teared up at. And senior defensive tackle Truman Gutapfel will always hold it dear to his heart.
“I’m going to remember that goal line stand forever,” Gutapfel said.
Just when you thought the Eagles might make it easy, they found a way to pour on the stress. Hilliman fumbled at BC’s seven-yard line, but three tips by Landry forced a Maryland field goal to cut it to 36-30.
In a carbon copy of the final series against Georgia Tech in Dublin, Addazio called on Hilliman to run it up the middle three times. He failed to get a first down, giving Maryland two minutes to make BC pay for its extra point and time management failures.
But unlike in Dublin, the Eagles knew how to win the game.
The blistering pass rush made Hills throw three balls toward the sideline. On the fourth try, Landry shoved the Maryland quarterback into the dirt. The junior defensive end finishes the season with 17 sacks, pulling away as the program’s single-season record holder. And after the game, Addazio gave no promises to Landry’s return next year. So if it were his final play, he made it a memorable one.
And so too have the Eagles. In a year full of struggles, BC finally put on an exclamation point in a way that hadn’t been done in almost a decade. The game wasn’t perfect—far from it. But it showed that the Eagles may have learned how to play a new style of offense and how to close games. After a recent string of recruiting coups by the program, perhaps the momentum has finally swung in this team’s favor.
“We started the year in Ireland, and we didn’t find a way to win yet,” Addazio said. “I really believe we have finally set that platform forward. … We have a great vibe right now. There’s so much positivity in the football world about Boston College.”
Yes, it’s barely a winning record. But it’s a winning record nonetheless. And, for the first time in a long time, BC has a winning streak that can’t end for eight months.
Featured Image by Carlos Osorio / AP Photo