Both No. 3 Clemson and Boston College were on the brink of history this past season.
Only Alabama stood in the way of the Tigers’ (5-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast) first College Football Playoff title. On the other hand, the Eagles (3-2, 0-2) were one game away from their first winless ACC season. BC alone entered the record books, albeit on an embarrassing note.
Early on, it seems history has a chance to repeat itself. With a win over Lamar Jackson and No. 7 Louisville and Florida State’s floundering, an undefeated Clemson looks to be on its way to another conference title and playoff berth. Meanwhile, BC has yet to win an ACC game or surpass the three-win total.
This matchup of division foes happens to be the third-annual Welles Crowther Red Bandanna Game. In spirit, the late Sept. 11 hero will serve as a 12th man of sorts in Alumni Stadium Friday night. Even without his physical presence, Crowther’s trademark, the red bandanna, will stand for his sacrifice on the heads of fans and integrated into BC’s uniforms. Just two years ago, BC shocked then-No. 9 USC, 37-31, in the first of these tribute games. Having played in that game, senior free safety John Johnson understands what it takes to pull off that kind of upset.
“I think we’re just trying to have fun,” Johnson said. “We’ve have to go out there and let it hang loose and just play with pure excitement. I remember when we played USC, that’s how it was, so we’ve got to try to create that same atmosphere.”
This week’s game will mark the first time a top-10 opponent will visit Chestnut Hill since the crowd-storming victory over the Trojans. Head coach Steve Addazio acknowledges the talent that populates Clemson’s roster, top to bottom.
“It’s hard to find any weakness when you look at them on either side of the ball,” Addazio said. “They have tremendous athletes at every position.”
Coming off back-to-back blowout wins against non-conference competition, the Eagles will be thrown right back into the line of fire, in a conference Addazio said is at the “tippity top.”
Despite a slow start offensively, the Tigers appear to have found their mojo, with Deshaun Watson in particular. Watson, who threw just three touchdown passes in the first two games of play, has thrown 11 in the past three. Five of them came at the expense of the upstart Cardinals. Clemson’s deep receiving core, led by Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Deon Cain, provides Watson with the opportunity to spread the field. Additionally, tight end Jordan Leggett has proven to be a reliable target. It was the senior who hauled in the game-winning score on Saturday night in Death Valley.
Johnson, a leader of the Eagles’ secondary, knows what’s at stake. Earlier in the week, he declared that the game will come down to BC’s defensive backs.
“Running with receivers and finishing routes is the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “We can’t get lax at the end of a route. We just have to finish to the ball to get an incompletion or an interception.”
Johnson may be onto something. While Watson, an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy, has continued his dual-threat performance that took the ACC by storm one year ago, he is turning the ball over more often. Having already thrown seven interceptions, including three last week, the NFL prospect could be susceptible to BC’s defense, depending on the play of Johnson and Co.
Offensively, the Eagles will be at pains to contend with a high-scoring Clemson attack. If BC is to win, it must turn to what it does best—running the football. Controlling the clock with a ground attack consisting of Jonathan Hilliman, Davon Jones, and Myles Willis will limit Clemson’s offensive possessions. If Hilliman can come anywhere close to repeating his dominant 2014 play, the Eagles will keep the Tigers’ defense on their heels. In effect, this would open up the play-action passing game, allowing Patrick Towles more time to survey the field and find an open receiver.
But, in reality, Towles may be best suited to manage a game like this. According to NCAA.com, Clemson is tied for eighth in the nation in forcing interceptions and has conceded a mere 159.6 passing yards per game this season (14th). After all, the Tigers even contained Jackson. The Heisman favorite was restricted to one touchdown pass and two rushing scores. While that may appear to be a decent performance, Jackson had been averaging just over three passing and rushing touchdowns apiece.
If Towles wants to keep BC in the game, he must avoid turnovers at all costs. Having made strides against Wagner and Buffalo, the redshirt senior should enter Friday’s prime time game with elevated confidence. Short and quick throws will help the Eagles move the chains, but anything longer could be a catalyst for chaos.
BC has not defeated a top-five opponent in 14 years. To be contenders against Clemson, the Eagles must be on top of all three phases of the game. With the Tigers’ skill level, a missed field goal, botched punt, or an ill-timed three-and-out could be enough to trigger an offensive explosion.
That being said, a victory would put BC in the record books again—this time as an inspiration, just like The Man in the Red Bandanna.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor