Hilliman, Makeshift Offense Shed Woes To Help BC Squeak Past NIU

A tandem of new faces walks into the press conference. One, a slender frame with a sheepish smile. The other, fire red hair, looking down at his feet. Socks and flops: the perfect combination when it’s time to kick back and relax. They put their arms around one another as Boston College’s defensive stars give their spiels about the Eagles’ fourth consecutive dominating defensive performance. When the pair’s turn comes, they plop down and hunch over the microphone, with slouched poses making it clear that, despite playing on national television, they’re still teenagers. Since this is the first post game press conference, they address us in the media.

“I’m Jeff Smith, quarterback,” the first one says. “I’m Troy Flutie, quarterback,” says the other.

If a two-quarterback system seems unconventional—not to mention destined for failure—well, it is. Each guy has a vastly different mindset on the field. Flutie prefers a more traditional style, with the occasional play action pass or scramble for the first down. Smith plays like Tyler Murphy, constantly choosing to exploit holes and run to move his team down field.

Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch often switched back and forth between the two, not just by series but by the plays within them. This might draw some concern that BC is essentially tipping its plays to the opposition. When Flutie comes in, the defense can anticipate either a pass or a handoff to one of BC’s bruising running backs. With Smith, expect play action or a QB keeper. Against ACC defenses, this choice may not work.

But today, in a 17-14 win by BC (3-1, 0-1 ACC) over non-conference powerhouse Northern Illinois University (2-2, 0-0 MAC), the strategy worked … barely.

Oh, and the resurgence of running back Jonathan Hilliman certainly helped, too.

Last week, Florida State’s defensive line punished Hilliman. Head coach Steve Addazio only allowed Hilliman to carry the ball eight times, usually for telegraphed runs up the middle. BC’s star back couldn’t do anything with those opportunities. He gained 15 yards, but also had several negative plays that brought his net total yardage to just seven.

Today, we saw the Jonathan Hilliman that broke onto the scene last season as a punishing freshman that will knock defenses over like dominoes in an old folks’ home.

He gained a net total of 119 yards on the ground (only three yards for a loss) on 24 carries. And, as Addazio put it after the game, it wasn’t by virtue of an improved performance from an offensive line that was without starting center Frank Taylor.

“We ran hard today,” Addazio said. “You all saw it, we ran differently today. I’m going to walk out of here feeling good today that we competed our tail off.”

Hilliman’s own skill reappeared on his touchdown run. He shook off one diving NIU defender before stiff-arming a second on his path to the end zone for the second time this season. Following the scoring play, he pumped his fists and pointed to the crowd as if to say, ‘You all better watch out, because I’m back.’

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And don’t discredit Hilliman’s opponents either. Northern Illinois is not like other mid-majors. The Huskies have won 11 games in each of the last five seasons, and held defending champion Ohio State to just 20 points a mere week ago.

Hilliman even gave it his all to bail out his first time starting quarterback(s). After connecting on a nice 30-yard reception to Sherman Alston, Flutie misread the Huskies’ defense—”a dumb decision,” he recalled afterwards—giving up an interception to Shawun Lurry. The NIU cornerback ran away, looking right for the end zone.

But out of nowhere, Hilliman showed up behind him. He grabbed Lurry’s foot by a finger just as he was about to cross the goal line, preventing the touchdown for the moment. Although NIU scored moments later, that kind of hustle earned praise from the whole team.

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“He played like a warrior today,” Addazio said.

It would be unwise to mention a BC win without the strong play of Don Brown’s defense. Once again, the Eagles crushed the hopes of an opposing offense, holding the Huskies to a miniscule 153 total yards. The list of great plays seems endless—John Johnson’s interception and forced fumble; Connor Strachan’s sack, with the help of fellow linebacker Matt Milano; the defensive line’s punishing ability to jettison opposing running backs to an early shower. And remember, the defense can hardly be faulted for any of the Huskies’ scoring today: one touchdown came on Argereos Turner’s 86-yard kickoff return, and the other was that two-yard run on the drive that began at the BC 4-yard line after Flutie’s interception.

As for BC’s quarterbacks, they played as well as you could’ve expected. They had some highlight reel plays, like a couple of broken runs that Smith capitalized on for big gains, or the beautiful, 27-yard play action touchdown pass from Flutie to Charlie Callinan.

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But then there was the bad. Smith tried to get too cute on a running play and fumbled the ball. And of course, the aforementioned interception.

This was the training session for Flutie and Smith. Get to know both of them very well—because of BC’s win, this two quarterback system will most likely be Addazio’s plan going forward. We’ll see if the predictability of BC’s playbook or the natural dysfunction of having two young quarterbacks will rear its ugly head when the team goes on the road.

At the end of the day, their performance was serviceable for the Eagles’ offense. It’s not ideal, but at least it gives BC a better chance to win.

And when you have a defense like BC does, serviceable is all you need to be.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

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About Michael Sullivan 272 Articles
Michael Sullivan was the 2017 editor-in-chief of The Heights and a two-time sports editor. He brought this paper to once a week and reminisces about the Wednesdays he could've had at BC. You can still follow his journalistic adventures @MichaelJSully.