Column: Lessons Learned From Bowl History Can Serve Eagles Well

There was once a time in Boston College football history when qualifying for a bowl game was a rare achievement. From 1995 to 1998, the Eagles failed to earn a postseason invite. Since then, however, BC has treated its fans to late December football for 11 straight seasons.

People who may laugh at the supposed ease of achieving bowl eligibility in Division I need only refer to a national powerhouse program like Texas, whose 2010 seasons will  end without a postseason bowl.

The Eagles are safely bowl eligible for a 12th straight year and have only improved their bowl prospects with their play the last few weeks. At Syracuse in the regular season finale, with two minutes remaining in the game, Eagles linebacker Mark Herzlich intercepted quarterback Ryan Nassib to seal the victory and put an exclamation point on a season that looked lost a month ago, while BC was mired in a five-game losing streak.

The team has since grown tremendously from the beginning of that skid. A season that began with veterans Dave Shinskie and Montel Harris in the backfield ended with freshman Chase Rettig and Andre Williams emerging as the future of a young team with a lot of potential.

This year’s team is similar to the 1999 one that kicked off the bowl streak with conservative coach Tom O’Brien leading the Eagles to the Insight.com Bowl, in which they were trounced by Colorado, 62-28. Buffaloes running back Cortlen Johnson, hardly a household name, ran for 201 yards.

The BC defense, anchored by All-American linebacker Luke Kuechly and fifth-year senior Mark Herzlich, is much more stout than the unit was in 1999. The Eagles have neutralized offenses like those of Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Clemson this year. They’re one of the top-ranked defenses in the country.

The 1999 squad leaned on unproven offensive players, such as Tim Hasselbeck and Cedric Washington, just like the current Eagles. The success of that team gave rise to the the future success of the program, including an eight-game bowl winning streak and some of the most successful classes in school history. A win against Nevada in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl could have similar implications.

Hasselbeck, Washington, and William Green began a streak of six consecutive bowl wins under O’Brien by beating Arizona State in the Aloha Bowl a year later. The Eagles beat solid programs like Georgia and Boise State during that streak. Their wins against Toledo, Colorado State, and North Carolina were memorable, as well.

Seemingly, in each one of those bowl games, a different player carried BC practically by himself. Green was the hero against Georgia in 2001, rushing for 149 yards and a late score. Brian St. Pierre tossed three touchdown passes in the Toledo game. Derrick Knight reached the end zone three times as well in the team’s first appearance in the San Francisco Bowl against Colorado State.

These games were just as memorable for the emergence of future superstar Eagles, such as Matt Ryan. As a freshman holder, Ryan orchestrated a fake field goal to seal the win against the Tar Heels in the 2004 Continental Tire Bowl. Ryan was the catalyst behind the final three wins of BC’s streak, culminating in a three-touchdown performance against Michigan State in the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl.

Since Matty Ice went third overall to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL draft, the Eagles have been unable to recapture the postseason success they enjoyed during their winning streak. They lost to Vanderbilt two years ago and USC last season. These losses, though, don’t diminish the progress the program has made since the beginning of the bowl appearance streak.

So here’s to the number 12, which not only belonged to Ryan but now belongs to the program writ large. As the Eagles prepare to play in their 12th straight bowl, let’s salute the team for giving us something to cheer for late into every season. And let’s look for the newest crop of stars and memorable moments this bowl season.