FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In 2015, because of injuries, Boston College turned to a young quarterback named Jeff Smith. An 18-year-old from Clearwater, Fla., Smith struggled to throw the ball, completing only 27 of his 82 attempts for 253 yards.
But man, could he run.
Smith showed off his legs, with 71 attempts for 450 yards and six touchdowns. The highlight: an 80-yard scamper against Notre Dame. His shiftiness and speed proved valuable to the Eagles, but if he couldn’t throw, where would Smith play?
Well, we have that answer.
In 2016, the Eagles, now with a true No. 1 quarterback in Kentucky graduate transfer Patrick Towles, spent the spring searching for wide receivers. Several stood out as potential starters, from Charlie Callinan, the stalwart from the last two seasons, to the sharp-cutting Michael Walker. Yet on gameday, one has stood above the rest.
His name? Jeff Smith.
Against the University of Massachusetts, Smith showed off his deep threat capabilities. Twice in the second quarter, Smith and Towles connected on deep passes for touchdowns. That gave the Eagles all the offense they would need in a 26-7 victory over the Minutemen in today’s Battle of the Bay State at Gillette Stadium. It’s the first time BC has won on the gridiron since Sept. 26, 2015, against Northern Illinois.
Like against Georgia Tech, the Eagles (1-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) got off to an anemic start in the first quarter. The two teams traded three-and-outs, but BC appeared to put things together on its second drive. An offensive attack that featured a couple of empty sets and sweeps from Myles Willis set up 3rd-and-2 at the UMass 23. Instead of passing on third down against a weak UMass (0-2) secondary, the Eagles opted for a pitch to Jonathan Hilliman, who was dropped in the backfield for a three-yard loss.
That put BC in its worst possible spot.
On 4th-and-5 from the UMass 27, and with kicker Colton Lichtenberg ailing, Steve Addazio decided to go for it. That led to a Towles scramble that was quickly stopped. Addazio wants to see some improvement with the running game, which stalled mightily in the first half
“Our rushing attack needs to get better,” Addazio said. “For us to rush for 153, you know, we want to be over 200 all the time.”
To make matters worse for the Eagles, the Minutemen immediately responded. UMass tight end Adam Breneman exposed a significant hole in the BC secondary, getting wide open for quarterback Ross Comis. The Penn State transfer outran everyone for a 58-yard touchdown and a 7-0 UMass lead.
Just in time for the Smith Show.
Early in the second, two UMass drives stalled—one because of a Connor Strachan seven-yard sack—setting up a BC first down at the Minutemen 46-yard line. On first down, Towles saw Smith on a double move over the middle, stretching out against cornerback and James Allen to dive into the end zone for the score.
But shades of BC’s woes reappeared. Inserted again as place kicker, Mike Knoll, who had been punting, missed the point-after attempt. It wouldn’t be much longer until he had another chance, thanks to Smith.
The Eagles’ swarming defense came again at the throat of Comis. The UMass quarterback attempted to run on a long third down, but Isaac Yiadom blew up the play with a huge fumble. Strachan recovered the ball at UMass’s 36-yard line, setting the Eagles up again with a short field goal.
No matter the distance. It would only take BC one play to reach paydirt again.
This time in double coverage, Towles lofted a pass over Smith’s right shoulder in the back of the end zone. Smith reeled it in mid-dive for his second touchdown of the day. He would finish with five receptions for 98 yards, both career highs. Knoll made up for his earlier mistake with a PAT, putting BC up 13-7.
“I used to say in high school, ‘If somebody’s even, they’re leaving,’” Towles said. “Jeff is that guy. If there’s someone running with Jeff, three steps later and he’s by them.”
BC nearly lost the momentum at the end of the half. Following a drive that ended in an 11-yard sack by Matt Milano, Towles threw an interception on a poorly telegraphed pass deep within BC territory.
The No. 1 defense in the nation returned with a vengeance. On 3rd-and-9, Strachan forced a fumble on Comis, recovered by Zach Allen.
A new BC team came alive in the second half. One that passes the ball down field, even on first down … and makes field goals. After a holding penalty and Harold Landry sack, Towles methodically picked at the Minutemen secondary. Passes of 15+ yards to Michael Walker, Charlie Callinan, and Tommy Sweeney put the Eagles in UMass territory. It’s the kind of strategic offensive attack, especially on first down, that Towles wants to see more of.
“I think a lot of pro-style offense can sometimes get predictable,” Towles said. “People don’t expect shots on first down, especially from us.”
But on 4th-and-8, Addazio had a decision. Go for it, or pour your faith into your second-string kicker?
So Addazio trotted Knoll out there onto the field. His trust was gratefully rewarded.
Knoll drilled a 40-yard field goal down the middle of the posts. Seconds later, after a Will Harris interception, Knoll would do it again, this time from 37 yards. After the game, Knoll was just happy to be in a postgame press conference for a positive result. Such is the fate of kickers.
“Hey, man, it’s the life we chose,” Knoll said.
By the fourth, Hilliman, who had struggled all game to separate himself, iced the Minutemen with a 15-yard touchdown scamper. After the game, there was nothing but cheers and smiles from the BC locker room.
“You need to enjoy the wins,” Addazio said. “God knows we’re going to get back in and get back to work. … It was really important for us to bounce back this week.”
But after 339 days of tough, one-score, gut-wrenching losses, BC deserves that chance to scream and yell and cheer, even if it’s just for one day.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor