For the second-consecutive season, the Boston College Eagles took down the Clemson Tigers in overtime. Last year, Matt Ryan shook off his "backup" role and led the visiting Eagles to their first-ever ACC win. On Saturday, Ryan fought off an ankle injury and willed his team to victory in an offensive showdown with the 18th-ranked Tigers.
Ryan completed 22 of 38 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown, while he and junior running back L.V. Whitworth, who had 78 yards and a touchdown on the ground, made the Eagles' offense an unstoppable force down the stretch. But without question, the offense's best weapon played on special teams.
True freshman Jeff Smith, after dropping (but recovering) his first career kick-off return, was lightning personified every time he touched the ball thereafter. His second try: 45 yards through a seam on the right side of the field. His third: 44 yards into Clemson territory. His fourth, which kicked off the second half: 96 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown that tied the game at 17. He finished with 213 yards – one shy of a single-game school record – on five returns.
"On that first one I was a little shaky," Smith, a New England champ in the 200-meter dash in high school, said about bobbling his first attempt. "After that happened I got my head back in the game and I said, ‘I can't end like that.' So I picked it up after that. There was a lot of support on the sidelines. Everyone was saying, ‘Forget it, you got more to come in this game.' I just looked up to my teammates and they helped me a lot to get back in the game."
Smith's gaudy return numbers meant prime field position for Ryan's offense. Ryan, who was listed as questionable all week and found out just moments before the game that he would be starting, failed to complete a pass in the first quarter. But Smith's play on special teams cut the field in half and Ryan soon found his bearings, engineering two scoring drives before the end of the half.
Save for Smith's touchdown return, the Eagles didn't score again until the end of the fourth quarter. After a one-yard score by Clemson's James Davis (24 carries, 93 yards, and two touchdowns) put the Tigers up 24-17 with less than eight minutes to play, Ryan capped off a nine-play, 58-yard drive by diving over his linemen for a one-yard TD run of his own with just over four minutes left. With the score now knotted at 24, the Tigers and Eagles were poised for another overtime battle.
Ryan Ohliger, who missed a 36-yard field goal at the start of the fourth quarter, opened the overtime scoring with a 35-yarder from the left hash mark. The Tigers, needing a touchdown to win or a field goal to match, were three yards away on the following possession from getting revenge for last year's defeat. Back-to-back tackles for a loss for a combined 13 yards by BC's junior defensive-end Nick Larkin, however, scooted the Tigers back to the 16-yard line. A three-yard pass wasn't enough to find the end zone and Jad Dean tied the game with a 30-yard chip shot.
"That was gut-check time," Larkin said after the game about Clemson's first-and-goal situation. "Jolonn [Dunbar] got the guys together and said, ‘Hey, they're not getting in. They are not getting in.' And they didn't. We stopped them."
The Eagles won the coin toss before the second overtime period and sent their defense out first. Clemson, who chose to play on the other side of the field to avoid the noisy BC student section, punched in a touchdown with another one-yard run by Davis. But Dunbar, who was emotionally charged throughout the night, broke through the line on the extra-point attempt and got his outstretched hand on Dean's kick.
"After they scored I just knew I had to try as hard as I can to get through and try to make a block," Dunbar said. "The special teams coach, Coach Cuskie [Jerry Petercuskie] called for a right block - my side of the line to block - so I tried to come in as hard as I can. The tight-end [covering Dunbar] set up a little high so I was able to slip him and then I just reached out for the block and, God gracious, I got my hand on it."
The momentum shift gave the Eagles' offense a confidence boost and Ryan and Whitworth came out to close the door. A third-down conversion by Ryan (on a eight-yard slant to Kevin Challenger) allowed Whitworth to blast through the middle for a six-yard score. When Ohliger converted the point-after, the upset was complete and the Eagles celebrated their first win over a ranked opponent at home under Tom O'Brien.
"I knew we were going to win that game after I saw that block," Whitworth said about Dunbar's special teams play in the previous possession. "The holes were open all day long so I knew, with us in the red zone, we were definitely going to score."
The large contingent of orange-clad Tiger-fans at Alumni Stadium packed it up and hit the exits as some members of the Eagles jumped into the all-yellow, BC student section. They had seen enough. The latest chapter in the ACC's newest rivalry had just been written, and the Eagles held a 2-0 advantage.