Football, Top Story

Against Iowa, Turnovers Cost Eagles Pinstripe Bowl

BRONX, N.Y. —  Three years after losing to Penn State, Boston College football was heading for another overtime finish in Yankee Stadium. Midway through the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl, BC and Iowa were deadlocked at 20 points apiece, as Darius Wade and the Eagles took the field for their second drive of the final frame. In a matter of seconds, the complexion of the game drastically changed.

On 3rd-and-8, Wade dropped back in the pocket and just before the graduate student could launch a pass downfield, he was strip-sacked by Iowa’s Anthony Nelson. The ball plummeted to the permafrost-lined field, and without hesitation, Hawkeyes linebacker Parker Hesse hopped on top of it, turning the ball back over to his offense.

The rest was history.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley ripped through the Eagles’ defense for a 27-yard run, quarterback Nathan Stanley hit tight end Nate Wieting for a gain of 17, and fullback Drake Kulick punched the ball into the end zone for the game-winning score.

BC got the ball back with three minutes and change left to play, but coughed it up before reaching Hawkeye territory for the second-straight possession. This time, Wade got off a pass, but it was intercepted by none other than Iowa’s future NFL cornerback, Josh Jackson, all but sealing its 27-20 victory—the Hawkeyes’ first in postseason play since 2010.

The Eagles (7-6, 4-4 Atlantic Coast) couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. On the third play of the game, Wade fired a bullet to his favorite target, Tommy Sweeney. In the 22-degree weather, the rock-solid ball bounced off the tight end’s hands and into the arms of Iowa (8-5, 4-5 Big Ten) defensive back Jake Gervase. The sophomore returned the interception 29 yards all the way to the Eagles’ 10-yard line. BC’s defense held, forcing the Hawkeyes to settle for a 24-yard field goal, but the damage was done. Two minutes in, the Eagles were already losing the turnover battle and, more importantly, the game.

On its next drive, the elements continued to give BC fits. Right when the Eagles started to move the sticks, Thadd Smith slipped on a jet sweep and Wade tripped while scrambling for a first down. No matter what BC tried, it couldn’t find its footing. Several players elected to wear flats instead of cleats to cope with the frozen terrain, but the wardrobe change hardly made a difference.

“I was wearing basketball shoes,” Sweeney told reporters following the game. “One weapon we had coming into this game was our speed, and [the conditions] negated our speed.”

It most certainly wasn’t fast, but BC did orchestrate a scoring drive in the first quarter. Over the course of about six minutes, the Eagles strung together a 14-play, 62-yard series. Wade led the charge, converting two third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion to keep the drive alive. Time and time again, the backup signal caller attacked the middle of the field, finding open receivers on drag and slant routes. After Wade hooked up with White for a 12-yard gain in the red zone, it was A.J. Dillon’s turn to shine. The ACC Rookie of the Year bounced outside the tackles, trailed behind his lead blockers, and bulldozed a pair of Hawkeye defenders on his way to the end zone, recording his 14th touchdown of the season.

Just when it looked like the tide was turning, Iowa running back Akrum Wadley returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards to BC’s 16-yard line. Noa Merritt nearly halted the Hawkeyes’ drive, sacking Stanley for a loss of 12 yards. But immediately after the play, the defensive tackle was called for a controversial excessive celebration penalty, gifting Iowa with a fresh set of downs. Stanley capitalized, hitting a wide-open Noah Fant for an eight-yard touchdown pass.

It was only a matter of time before the Eagles finally got the ball to bounce their way—literally. After riding Dillon into Hawkeye territory, offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler called for the play fake. Wade pretended to extend the ball to Dillon and then heaved a pass 30 yards downfield to Sweeney. Unlike the first quarter, Sweeney didn’t drop the ball—instead, his defender did. It ricocheted off the hands of Iowa defensive back Amani Hooker, five feet into the air. While turning toward the end zone, Sweeney—who finished the game with a career-high 137 receiving yards—hauled in the tipped ball, and sprinted past the goal line, capping the 39-yard score.

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If it wasn’t for Wade’s interception, Wadley’s kickoff return, or Merritt’s penalty, Iowa would’ve been down two scores. Stanley, who was sacked three times on the night, was taking a beating, and the running game was virtually non-existent. In fact, Wadley and James Butler combined for just 23 rushing yards in the entire first half of play.

Before the break, the Eagles tacked on a field goal, thanks to Dillon’s 66-yard breakaway run, and could have just easily furthered their lead a few minutes later had Colton Lichtenberg not shanked a 36-yard field goal as time expired.

Without a doubt, BC outplayed the Hawkeyes in the first half. Wade was completing over 70 percent of his passes, Dillon eclipsed the 100-yard mark, and, as a team, the Eagles were on pace to record over 500 total yards of offense. Iowa, on the other hand, was hovering around the 50-yard mark, showing little to no signs of life offensively.

“Clearly, we had to change our tempo,” Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Our guys just made up their minds to do that.”

Less than five minutes into the second half, Iowa marched 58 yards downfield to tie the game. All of a sudden, Wadley had room to run, perhaps due to the fact that BC’s already depleted linebacking corps was without John Lamot, who was a late scratch, and Kevin Bletzer, who left the game with an injury during the second quarter. To complement the resurgent rushing attack, Stanley connected with wide receiver Nick Easley for a 32-yard pickup, practically doubling his first-half passing totals. Once the Hawkeyes were in the red zone, Wadley stole the spotlight, scoring on a five-yard touchdown run. For the first time all night, Iowa looked like the better team.

As the momentum shifted to the Hawkeyes, BC floundered on offense, punting on back-to-back possessions. Iowa took full advantage of the opportunity. Behind Wadley and Butler, the Hawkeyes inched the ball into BC territory. The four and a half minute drive culminated in a go-ahead, 38-yard Miguel Recinos field goal.

But just when it looked as if the Eagles were going to roll over, Wade went back to Sweeney on a short crossing pattern. With open daylight, the 6-foot-5 tight end barreled downfield before being brought down at Iowa’s seven-yard line. Wade and Co. failed to find the end zone, but Lichtenberg bounced back from his second-quarter miss, drilling the game-tying chip shot.

The Eagles had the opportunity to finish the season just like how it started. All they needed was a game-winning field goal to break a 20-20 tie. But when all was said and done, Lichtenberg never got a shot at eternal glory. A pair of turnovers killed the Eagles’ chances and practically handed Iowa the bowl game.

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“We all know that we can’t turn the ball over,” BC head coach Steve Addazio said. “We had three turnovers—one in the first half, two in the second half—so all the stats and all the yardage, that doesn’t mean anything. When you turn the ball over, you put yourself in harm’s way.”

Now, for the fourth time in the past five years, the Eagles are staring at a 7-6 record—the epitome of mediocrity. All things considered, Addazio has to be happy with where his team ended up. But it also has to be gut-wrenching, knowing that if BC hadn’t lost the turnover battle—something that it hadn’t done since September—it would have probably finished the season with eight wins.

Photos by Keith Carroll / Heights Staff

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Staff

December 27, 2017