For the past two years, Boston College football wide receiver Michael Walker has been on the verge of ripping off a punt return touchdown. In Week Five of last season, the upperclassman single-handedly snapped the Eagles’ early-season three-game losing streak with a trio of punt returns of 25 or more yards against Central Michigan, including one that stretched 61 yards and nearly resulted in six. On Saturday night, Walker—the ninth-best punt return man in the country heading into the weekend—finally found the end zone, accomplishing the feat on the biggest stage in college sports: a primetime College GameDay-featured matchup against undefeated Clemson.
With the snap in hand, Tigers punter Will Spiers drifted right and kicked a rugby punt in the direction of Walker. But before it could reach the Naples, Fla. native, it bounced off Clemson wide receiver T.J. Chase. Instead of letting the ball roll past his own 25-yard line, Walker surprised the Tigers’ gunners by fielding the punt and immediately making a beeline for the edge, breaking a leg tackle in the process. Once the senior reached the outside, he sprinted down the sideline, juking past Dexter Lawrence and following his blockers to the end zone with his hoodie bobbing in the wind. Walker galloped toward the BC student section, as Alumni Stadium erupted in excitement. Leading, 7-3, BC was in the driver’s seat at home against the second-best team in the nation—there was a sliver of hope for Eagles fans.
Not so fast, my friends.
Soon enough, reality set in. Clemson responded with a nine-play, 70-yard touchdown drive. Then, E.J. Perry jogged onto the field for his first series since Week Four—a reminder that starting quarterback Anthony Brown was still out after suffering a serious “internal body” injury during the Eagles’ first drive of the game. Brown never returned, and Scot Loeffler’s offense failed to establish any sort of rhythm. In fact, BC mustered just 113 total yards, 311 less than the Tigers. Just like last year’s meeting, the Eagles gave Clemson fits on the other side of the ball, recording a sack, interception, and four tackles for loss, all while holding the Tigers to a pair of red zone field goals. In the end, though, all BC had to fall back on was Walker’s punt return touchdown—a scoring play that was replicated by Tigers wide receiver Amari Rodgers in the fourth quarter: the nail in the coffin for a decisive Atlantic Division-clinching 27-7 victory.
Trevor Lawrence—long flowy hair and all—was the butt of several GameDay signs on Saturday morning, but three plays into the top-20 matchup, everyone in the Alumni Stadium recognized just how good the true freshman gunslinger really is. The Cartersville, Ga. native dropped back to pass, pump-faked—as a result, freezing cornerback Hamp Cheevers—and delivered a 41-yard strike to Rodgers, vaulting No. 2 Clemson (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast) into the red zone. Cheevers redeemed himself moments later, blitzing Lawrence on 3rd-and-4. The 6-foot-5 signal caller never saw the feisty corner and had to throw the ball away to avoid a punishing sack. The Tigers walked away from the drive with a 30-yard Greg Huegel field goal—the first of many small victories for No. 17 BC’s (7-3, 4-2) defense.
Thanks to a screen pass to Travis Levy, the Eagles picked up a first down on their opening drive. That said, it was hardly the start of anything substantial. If anything, it was the beginning of the end. On 3rd-and-10, Brown felt pressure off the edge from Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and rolled right to buy himself a bit more time. Within seconds, Wilkins got his hands on the redshirt sophomore quarterback—in order to avoid the sack, Brown chucked the ball toward the sideline, but the incompletion came at a cost. Wilkins drove Brown to the ground, and the Cliffwood, N.J. native took a hard fall. What look like an apparent shoulder problem turned out to be an undisclosed internal injury. Brown was helped off the field, walked to the locker room, and eventually taken to a nearby hospital.
On the ensuing Clemson series, BC came up with its first stop of the night and, consequently, its lone touchdown of the game—Walker’s 74-yard punt return, the eighth longest in program history.
Lawrence and the Tigers were unfazed by the highlight-reel scoring play. The true freshman quarterback, who was 10-of-11 to start the game, strung together five-straight completions to start the following Clemson drive—the biggest of which was a 35-yard touch pass to Tee Higgins. At 6-foot-4, the long-armed wide receiver extended his arms over Brandon Sebastian and hauled in the reception to infiltrate BC territory. Once on the goal line, the Tigers slowed down, needing four plays to reach the end zone. Ray Smith and Connor Strachan stopped Travis Etienne short of the paint on 3rd-and-Goal, but head coach Dabo Swinney wasn’t satisfied with settling for another chip-shot.
Rather, he brought in the big boy defensive tackles—Lawrence and Wilkins—at fullback and halfback, respectively. Trevor Lawrence snapped the ball, faked the handoff to Wilkins, and dropped a two-yard touchdown pass over the outstretched hand of Strachan to Milan Richard.
In 95 seconds of game time, BC punted the ball right back to Clemson, following three-consecutive A.J. Dillon run plays. With Perry at the helm, head coach Steve Addazio was hesitant to pass, especially downfield. The sixth-year Eagles coach even opted for wide receiver Jeff Smith to throw the ball on a double reverse before Perry attempted his first pass of the game. The sophomore finished just 3-of-5 for 17 yards in the opening two quarters of play.
As a team, BC was no better. Clemson outgained the Eagles, 260-24, in total yards in the first half. If it wasn’t for Jim Reid’s defense or Ricky Brown’s special teams unit, the game certainly would have been out of hand.
Early in the second quarter, Lawrence hooked up with Derion Kendrick for a gain of 32 yards. One play later, Etienne scampered for 16 yards and a first down. Yet, once again, BC buckled down in the red zone, forcing a 23-yard Huegel field goal.
Shortly after the Eagles’ worst sequence of the game—a high snap that soared over Perry’s head for a loss of 32 yards—BC created another potential game-changing special teams. On 4th-and-49, Grant Carlson—who logged 12 punts on the night—kicked the ball to Rodgers. The sophomore called for a fair catch, but muffed the punt. Taj-Amir Torres recovered, and BC took over near midfield, only to go three-and-out. Despite a last-minute drive and a Hail Mary attempt, Clemson entered the break with just a 13-7 advantage.
“We tried to get in at halftime and kind of just re-establish what we felt we could do confidently in the second half,” Addazio told reporters after the game. “You know, not just get reckless out there and give the game away.”
If anything, however, the Eagles were too conservative. BC continued to run the ball, even though the ground game was ineffective and, quite frankly, inefficient. Dillon—who carried the ball 16 times for a mere 39 yards, noticeably inhibited by his nagging ankle injury—was practically rendered obsolete.
The Tigers didn’t waste any time before extending their lead with a three-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that spanned all of one minute and 17 seconds. Following a tackle-breaking 25-yard Etienne run and a 33-yard Hunter Renfrow reception, Lawrence waltzed into the end zone on the zone read for a six-yard score, putting Clemson up 20-7.
BC recorded a few first downs here and there, but Perry’s dink-and-dunk passing and speed option running style was no match for the Tigers’ vaunted defensive line. The sophomore took hit after hit, taking two sacks in the third quarter alone. Luckily for the Eagles, their defensive didn’t allow any more points the rest of the game. Their special teams unit, on the other hand, did.
With about 12 minutes left to play, Rodgers housed a 58-yard punt return, effectively putting both the game and the Atlantic Division out of reach. Lawrence—29-of-40 on the night—and Clemson polished off the statline in the waning minutes, while BC limped over 100-yard mark, swallowing a 20-point defeat.
Just like last year, BC now faces the possibility of having to rely on a backup quarterback to play extended time in the latter portion of the season. It almost seems as if Addazio—who has finished 7-6 in four of his five full seasons with the team—can’t catch a break.
“We’re not going to have a pity party here,” he said. “It is what it is.”
In the morning, there was more buzz surrounding the program than there had been in years. Students started lining up for GameDay at 5 a.m. and stayed throughout the entire three-hour show, watching Desmond Howard and Chris O’Donnell pick the upset. That’s a moment that they’ll never forget. But Saturday night will only be remembered for what could have been.
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor
Photos by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor