WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It began like many other Boston College football games have over the last two years.
The defense briefly showed signs of bending. Kevin Kavalec jumped offsides, giving Wake Forest some extra momentum. But the defensive end made up for it immediately. He wrapped up Cade Carney behind the line, before forcing a tipped pass that nearly led to an interception. Kavalec made up for his mistakes singlehandedly to make Dom Maggio punt it away to Tyler Rouse.
The senior found a seam up the middle. Rouse, the 5-foot-6 sparkplug whose long returns have been hampered by a plethora of flags, had nothing but 30 yards behind him and the sharp glare on Wake Forest’s end zone in front. He outran everyone.
Everyone except Demetrius Kemp.
The Demon Deacons’ special teams man poked the ball out from Rouse’s right arm. A golden scoring chance turned quickly into a failed opportunity.
But this story has a different ending than most. Because of that good ol’ BC defense—and a missed field goal, too—this story ends in bowl eligibility.
The Eagles mustered a paltry 167 yards of offense. Yet with two huge turnovers—an interception immediately following Rouse’s miscue, and a fumble on special teams—BC’s defense kept the team in its game against the Demon Deacons. And with two huge catches by Tommy Sweeney in the fourth quarter, the offense did just barely enough to earn BC’s sixth win of the season. The Eagles don’t know where yet, but a 17-14 victory over Wake Forest will send them to a bowl game. For head coach Steve Addazio, it likely means he will return in 2017 for his fifth season. From the sound of it, that’s a happy sign for the men in the locker room.
“It’s just an amazing feeling, making everybody be quiet now,” defensive end Harold Landry said after the game. “Everybody comes at our coaching staff, man, but everybody on this team and in this program, we all love the coaches here. We don’t want anybody else coaching us.”
Yet the Eagles (6-6, 2-6 Atlantic Coast) couldn’t just talk about love for the coaches against the Demon Deacons (6-6, 3-5). They had to show it on the field. It wouldn’t be easy for any of the three units.
Immediately following that fumble by Rouse, Landry forced Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford to throw a flailing pass into no-man’s land. John Johnson dove in for the interception, setting up the Eagles with the prime field position they thought they had after the punt return.
BC couldn’t get a lot of momentum despite the great field position. But kicker Mike Knoll, who has provided a stability at the position the team has lacked over the last couple of years, knocked through a 22-yard field goal. On its first drive of the game, BC already matched the score of last year’s game with the Demon Deacons: 3-0.
Back-to-back three-and-outs led to a Wake Forest drive beginning at its 37-yard line. Wolford ran 35 yards through the middle, showing shades of BC’s explosive play problems from earlier in the year. Yet again, the defense tightened up when it mattered most. Matt Milano grabbed Wolford’s leg on a sneak attempt on 4th-and-1, forcing a turnover on downs.
The Eagles’ offense still couldn’t make anything happen. So the special teams decided to go to work.
Knoll had to punt following another three-and-out, a 55-yard booming kick that hugged the BC bench. Return man Jessie Bates III could’ve—and likely, should’ve—called for a fair catch. Instead, he backpedaled and tried to make a few men mess up the sideline. Myles Willis, the Eagles’ dynamic senior running back and special-teams expert, was ready for the play. He lowered his head at Bates’s arm to strip the ball. Connor Strachan recovered, making special teams coach Al Washington dance on the sideline.
“It was a weird play, because we all thought [Bates] fair caught it,” Willis said. “I think he thought it, too.”
Willis wasn’t finished. After Towles completed a sharp screen to Michael Walker, led by great blocking from Aaron Monteiro and Elijah Johnson, Willis ran the ball in from 11 yards out on an off-tackle counter to the left for a 10-0 BC lead. It was the first offensive touchdown of the year for the senior captain. And the offense which has struggled so mightily all season successfully took advantage of two opportunities on which it had to convert.
“We know we have a great defense,” Willis said. “It was time for us to pull our weight.”
The Eagles’ defense held strong to finish the half, as they forced another turnover on downs and Mike Weaver missed a 51-yard attempt. But come the second half, BC’s defensive luck wouldn’t last.
Head coach Dave Clawson had his team turn up the tempo in the third quarter, something that has killed the Eagles all season. Working with a short field, Wolford chewed up the BC secondary through the air and on the ground. He finished the drive by finding Cam Serigne with separation between Johnson and Strachan in the end zone.
On the Demon Deacons’ subsequent drive, they went to the deep ball. Wolford had tried it all game, yet finally converted by drawing a pass interference on Will Harris. Two plays later, Cortez Lewis burned Isaac Yiadom for 37 yards and a dive into the end zone, and a 14-10 Wake lead.
As if on cue, the Eagles’ season quickly burst into flames. Shades of 2015’s poor game management rekindled as Towles had to run for his life on back-to-back long third downs. Facing a 4th-and-1 deep in Wake’s zone with 10 minutes to go and the game potentially on the line, Addazio chose to go for it. He was rewarded with a delay-of-game penalty. Knoll came on to punt. Addazio screamed and nearly threw his headset into the same oblivion where it landed last year.
A few minutes later, it nearly happened again. Towles and Rouse combined for back-to-back long runs, putting BC deep in Wake Forest territory again. With another 4th-and-1 forthcoming, the Eagles were called for an illegal shift. Addazio called a timeout—this time with the season definitely on the line. Up to that point, Towles had had a pitiful performance in what could have been his final collegiate game. He was not about to let it go down like that.
“If we want to change the way people think about us,” Towles said in the huddle, “now’s the time to do it.
So the Eagles went with two plays to Sweeney, their most reliable receiver, on what Addazio called BC’s “most clutch drive of the year.” The tight end made a sliding catch on fourth down to net 16 yards. After a one-yard gain by Willis, Towles found Sweeney wide-open in the back of the end zone. After the game, Sweeney said the Eagles had just added that play to the book on Wednesday evening. And he confirmed that he has never had a bigger two-catch stretch in his life.
“The plays were perfectly executed,” Sweeney said. “I just happened to be the recipient.”
All that was left was for the defense to hold. The Eagles forced an intentional grounding by Wolford which then transitioned into a huge sack by Landry—that play helped him become the school’s single-season sack leader, with 14.
It’s rarely easy for BC, though, is it?
With a quick three-and-out, Wolford and Co. got back on the field in a hurry. The Demon Deacons made all the offensive plays they needed, highlighted by a huge catch by Tabari Hines on a throw Wolford made mid-hit by Strachan. That set up Weaver for a 37-yard field goal attempt.
When his kick went wide left, that’s when you knew the story had changed. For the Eagles, a team that had missed two field goals in this exact matchup last year, a missed field goal was their saving grace. And as Lukas Denis came down with the game-winning pick, the improbable had been confirmed.
BC has flipped the script, in a minor way at least. The Eagles head into bowl season at 6-6, a record many would have been content with entering the year. Though feelings have soured because of the blowout nature of BC’s defeats, the Eagles will now be going to their third bowl in four years. Addazio is only the second coach at BC to achieve this feat in his first four years in charge. It wasn’t how he imagined Year Four of his Five-Year Plan for contention. But then again, things never go the way you think they might.
“What we wanted to make sure we did [entering Year Four] was to get bowl eligible, and that’s what we did,” Addazio said. “How you get there never goes exactly how you plan. … It’s a credit to these players. It was so important to get our program back into a bowl game.”
Addazio asserted that the Eagles aren’t nowhere close to the level they need to be—the finished product has yet to be seen. But Addazio is excited for the future, and he feels confident in the guys that are coming back. After all, the guys are why he got into this business in the first place. All he has wanted is to be a teacher to his players, and he believes a win like this—one Addazio identifies as gritty and tough—is the exact kind of life lesson he wants to provide.
“Our University, Boston College, faith is such an important piece,” Addazio said. “And we had to keep the faith in each other. … That’s what I’m most proud of, of everything that’s taken place this season. Faithfulness and loyalty will always be rewarded. What a great lesson.”
With another bowl game to come, the Eagles have a new mission: win it. It’s something the program hasn’t done since 2009. Addazio is no stranger to that.
But for now, a comeback win to achieve a goal few believed BC could accomplish? What a great lesson indeed.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor