DUBLIN — New year, same heartbreak.
In the season opener against Georgia Tech at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, Boston College football had its gut ripped out by Georgia Tech. The Eagles appeared to have just enough offense with the same dominating defense for most of their game against the Yellow Jackets. But first-half turnovers and late secondary breakdowns plagued BC, leading to a 17-14 defeat.
The Eagles (0-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) got off to a methodical start on offense. The running back tandem of Jonathan Hilliman and Tyler Rouse skillfully used their blockers, especially Jon Baker and Chris Lindstrom through the middle, to gain yards on the ground on BC’s first drive. Patrick Towles helped with his legs, too, showing off the shiftiness he rarely was allowed to display at Kentucky.
But a tipped pass by Tommy Sweeney into the hands of Corey Griffin gave Georgia Tech (1-0 1-0). While Connor Strachan showed off his monstrous ability to get in the backfield—he had three tackles for loss on the Yellow Jackets’ first drive—the secondary collapsed. As a Paul Johnson-coached team is adept to do, Georgia Tech’s option run set up the deep ball perfectly. Justin Thomas completed two passes for 49 yards, before Matthew Jordan kept the ball for a three-yard touchdown. After a three-and-out by the Eagles on their second drive, the first quarter concluded with a 7-0 Georgia Tech lead.
In the second, that swarming BC front-seven came alive. Three times, the linebacking corps and Truman Gutapfel forced three-and-outs by Georgia Tech’s running attack with stifling tackles. One of those drives was thanks to a brilliant punt by Mike Knoll. The embattled kicker who lost favor with the staff after a rough freshman appears to have stunted the blow of losing Alex Howell. His third punt of the half pinned the Ramblin’ Wreck on their one-yard line, allowing for an easy BC stop.
But the scoring still didn’t come. On BC’s third drive, Towles moved the offense down the field. This was largely due to the superb athleticism of Jeff Smith, in his first game as a wide receiver, to find openings. But that still fizzled. This time, it was the special teams, as Colton Lichtenberg’s 42-yard field goal was blocked—he had missed three of his first four attempts in 2015.
And just when it couldn’t get bad enough for BC’s offense in the first half—well, it did. Following that drive in which Knoll pinned the Yellow Jackets within the one, the Eagles got the ball back at the opposing 33-yard line. It nearly looked like a successful drive, as Myles Willis ran the ball well and the Eagles had two timeouts remaining. But at their own 22-yard line, right tackle Jimmy Lowery blew coverage of Antonio Simmons. The junior defensive lineman knocked the ball out of Towles‘ hands, right into an expectant Kyle Cerge-Henderson. In an instant, the collective BC faithful returned to the trauma of last season.
“The ball was wet, kind of a combination, but you can’t make excuses,” Towles said of his turnovers. “I’m 22 years old and I’ve played in a lot of football games. There is no excuse for that.”
It’s a good thing the Eagles have Hilliman again. The running back from New Jersey rumbled through the right side of BC’s offensive line, dashing down the sideline for a 73-yard touchdown run on an inside zone that was split to the outside.
For Hilliman, the touchdown was an important milestone. After breaking his foot last season against Northern Illinois, he exploded for 103 yards on 17 carries. Following the game, he was happy that he has finally had a chance to get back on the field. A long touchdown doesn’t hurt either.
“I saw the crease, the safety came down late, and all I had to do was outrun him,” Hilliman said.
Hilliman helped the momentum swing to the defense. On the ensuing drive, it appeared as if the Yellow Jackets had figured out how to run the option against the front seven, with several strong runs up the middle. But as they did so many times last year, the Eagles’ defense stepped up. John Johnson forced Dedrick Mills to fumble and it was recovered by Gutapfel.
The nightmare on special teams, however, continued.
Towles and co. worked down the field again in the third. After Michael Walker slipped following a solid reception, the Eagles had 4th-and-2 from deep within their own territory. Addazio had two options: run it up the gut with an offensive line that had played solidly, or turn again to Lichtenberg. This time, Addazio made the wrong choice. Lichtenberg shanked the field goal left, his second miss of the game, from 35 yards out. In the postgame press conference, Addazio was surprised and worried about the kicking game, but adamant about his choice to go for the field goal.
“Our percentage of kicking field goals this training camp was really high,” Addazio said. “Yeah, I’m concerned: we didn’t make two field goals out here. But it’s not what I saw in camp. In fact I had a tough decision to make on that field and I decided to kick that field goal from the 18 because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t end up being the right decision.”
In 2015, this would have killed BC. But this time, the Eagles have a quarterback that can keep them in games.
Towles, the graduate transfer from Kentucky, charged down the field with two long passes to Callinan and Chris Garrison. But when it came time to score, Towles did it all himself. The 6-foot-5, 250 pound quarterback found an expertly made hole in his offensive line to sneak through for the Eagles’ second touchdown of the game.
Yet the Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech just wouldn’t quit. They immediately responded by driving down for a 40-yard field goal, on a drive extended by a Kamrin Moore pass interference penalty. On the ensuing BC drive, the Eagles went with an ultra-conservative offense, with three runs up the middle for almost no gain, in an effort to protect the ball.
That gave the Yellow Jackets time to make a play. A little too much time.
On their drive, Georgia Tech abandoned the triple option and went for the deep ball. Forced to a 4th-and-19 after a Matt Milano sack, Thomas dropped back and fired in the air to Que Searcy. The receiver came down with it over the head of Moore on the BC sideline, giving Tech a first down. Moments later, Thomas found Ricky Jeune on 3rd-and-long for a 26-yard pass. At that point, Johnson went back to the triple option, and Mills dashed in for a six-yard touchdown.
By the time the Eagles attempted a comeback, it was too late.
On the whole, BC has improved. The offense moved better than it had in all of last season, especially along the line. The front-seven looked as dominant as ever.
But many of the same issues—toss-up decisions that never seem to go BC’s way, late breakdowns, and special teams miscues—remained the same. And it keeps BC’s ACC losing streak—and the disappointment of Eagles fans everywhere—extended to at least another two weeks, until it takes on Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium on Sept. 17.
“Those four are costly plays that got them out of three 3rd-and-longs and one 4th-and-20,” Addazio said. “That was the story with those four plays. So you take those two things and put them together, it cost us the football game. Because, really, in between all that, we played pretty well. But we didn’t win.”
Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor