Like 2009, BC’s College GameDay Is About Beating the Odds

The Black Eyed Peas were atop the Billboard Hot 100, and Paranormal Activity and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had just been released in theaters—that was October 2009, the last time Boston College football hosted ESPN’s College GameDay. On Saturday, the iconic three-hour show is coming back to Chestnut Hill for the Eagles’ biggest game of the decade: a primetime matchup against No. 2 Clemson.

Over the course of the past two months, BC ended its decade-long drought without an appearance in the AP Poll, cracked the College Football Playoff rankings, and rattled off back-to-back wins over Coastal Division powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech. There’s excitement building around the Eagles heading into the weekend, whereas the last time BC had GameDay, the program was firmly established as one of the most competitive in the ACC.

The Eagles were coming off their second-straight conference championship appearance, looking to post their ninth-consecutive eight-plus win season. Just like this fall, BC opened the 2009 season with a Bay State blowout, only then it came against Northeastern, not Massachusetts. The Eagles cruised to a 2-0 start with a non-conference victory over Kent State before dropping their first game of the year—a 25-7 defeat to Clemson.

BC reentered the win column the following week, however, with an overtime victory against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to extend the game past regulation. After failing to find the end zone, Steve Aponavicius drilled a 23-yard field goal to give BC the lead. The Eagles needed a stop on the other side of the field—they got that and more. After a miscommunication in the backfield, Demon Deacons quarterback Riley Skinner coughed up the rock, and BC safety Wes Davis recovered the fumble, securing a three-point win, effectively locking up an ABC-broadcasted matchup against Florida State.

The Atlantic Division showdown marked the second time in four years that the Eagles would be playing a College GameDay-featured game against head coach Bobby Bowden’s team. FSU limped into the high-profile affair after suffering a 10-point upset loss to South Florida the week before, sliding out of the AP Poll in the process. It was Bowden’s 34th and final season with the Seminoles, but BC linebacker Mark Herzlich was undoubtedly the storyline over the weekend.

After playing in every game as an underclassman, the Wayne, Pa. native rose to the national scene as a junior, racking up 110 tackles, six interceptions, eight pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and 13 tackles for a loss, en route to ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was a projected top-15 pick, but instead of leaving for the NFL Draft, he decided to return for his senior season—one that was in question for more than a year.

In May 2009, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. With a 70 percent chance of survival, the linebacker fought his way through 50 rounds of radiation, doing everything he could to get back on the field. Five months after his diagnosis, Herzlich joined Rece Davis, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of College GameDay to the joy of SuperFans coating the outskirts of a muddy Stokes Lawn. He publicly announced that he was cancer free, setting the stage for what ended up being one of the most memorable days in BC Athletics history.

Prior to the start of the game, Herzlich—donning a maroon jumpsuit—got the crowd going, walking up and down the field with a microphone, spewing words of encouragement. BC clearly fed off the energy, as the Eagles jumped out to a 21-6 first-half lead.

Montel Harris kickstarted the scoring spurt with a three-yard touchdown run. Then, on the goal line, Rich Gunnell—now, BC’s wide receivers coach—hauled in a short Dave Shinskie pass on an out route. The program’s all-time leading receiver got both feet in bounds before shuffling outside the paint. Jeff Smith, unrelated to current the Eagles wideout, capped the half with a 38-yard touchdown reception down the left sideline.

Quarterbacked by Christian Ponder, FSU stitched together an 18-point comeback in the latter portion of play. The junior—who came into the game as the ACC’s leading passer—completed 29 of his 42 pass attempts for 340 yards and orchestrated a pair of 84-plus yard touchdown drives, the second of which ended in a successful two-point conversion.

With the game tied at 21, Harris took matters in his own hands in the fourth quarter. The sophomore back found a hole through the middle of the trenches, cut to the right, and made a beeline for the end zone, ultimately diving past the pylon for the game-winning score.

The 28-21 victory pushed the Eagles’ record to 4-1 on the year. When all was said and done, BC finished 8-5 that season, losing to Southern California in the Emerald Bowl. The postseason loss marked the beginning of the program’s downward spiral. Since then, the Eagles have yet to log eight or more wins in a season. BC is 51-59 during that span, including just 26-43 in ACC play.

After a nine-year hiatus, College GameDay is back on campus, highlighting another comeback. This time, the story’s not about a particular player, but rather the entire program. And while a school’s return to football prominence is in no way comparable to Herzlich’s moving journey, both came against all odds.

Just like back in 2009, BC has a star running back sporting the No. 2 jersey and a speedster on the outside named Jeff Smith. Time will tell if the Eagles’ Saturday night game against Clemson will follow a similarly improbable, yet inspiring, narrative.

Featured Image Courtesy of Heights Archives

November 8, 2018