Commentary

What we learned about BC

Eagles observations from a wild victory in Chestnut Hill

Updated: September 26, 2009, 10:38 PM ET
By Rich Levine | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Questions?

Yeah, the 2009 Boston College football team knows about questions.

They started back in January, after head coach Jeff Jagodzinski, he of back-to-back great seasons, was fired amid a dispute so volatile, both privately and publicly, that you could've sworn Al Davis was involved.

They intensified in March, when co-captain Mike McLaughlin tore his Achilles tendon during a routine conditioning drill. The senior linebacker, who was BC's second-leading tackler in 2008, would be down for at least six months, leaving a huge void on a defense that would already be losing two starting defensive linemen in the NFL draft.

In May, the linebacking corps -- and the entire BC community -- took another hit, with the heart-breaking reality of Mark Herzlich's cancer diagnosis. At the time, football was the least of anyone's concern, but the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year was done for 2009.

And in June, just when things couldn't get any worse, they did, when recently suspended Eagles QB Dominique Davis became ex-Eagles QB Dominique Davis. His transfer left the Eagles with a Vince Wilfork-sized hole at the quarterback position.

By the time September rolled around, your average BC season preview featured more question marks than a half hour with Alex Trebek.

Can first-year head coach Frank Spaziani run the show on his own? Will McLaughlin return, and if so, how effective will he be? Who's going to pressure the opposing QB? How will the defense react to the loss of Herzlich? Will it even matter without a quarterback to lead the offense?

But with the regular season comes clarity, and after Saturday's topsy-turvy overtime victory over Wake Forest, the picture is slowly creeping into focus.

So let's take a look at a few things we learned, or rather, the good and the bad from a crazy afternoon in Chestnut Hill ...

The good

1. BC has found its quarterback

[+] EnlargeDave Shinskie
Greg M. CooperBoston College quarterback David Shinskie had a big afternoon, throwing for 228 yards and three touchdowns (to go with one interception).
On Saturday morning, the Eagles were still a two-quarterback team; on Saturday afternoon, David Shinskie stood alone.

After taking only two snaps in last week's loss to Clemson, the 25-year-old true freshman took all but one against the Demon Deacons, compiling an impressive stat line that included 228 yards passing, three TDs and only one interception.

"It confirms a lot that we already knew about him," said Spaziani. "We knew that he had athletic ability, we knew he could make big plays, and we knew he could get us out of trouble. But you never know how a guy is going to react when the bullets start flying. ... He didn't look like a guy who [was] out of football for seven years."

Despite the aforementioned seven-year layoff, during which he enjoyed a stint playing minor league baseball, Chris Weinke 2K9 looked poised throughout the afternoon, excelling most, in the words of Spaziani, when "the bullets started flying."

This was no more apparent than in the Eagles' lone overtime possession.

It's third-and-4 on the Wake 20-yard line. Certainly not out of kicker Steve Aponavicius' range, but a 37-yard field goal in college is, well, a 37-yard field goal in college. Hardly easy money, and at this stage in the game, the Eagles can afford nothing less.

So Shinskie takes the snap, and drops back into the pocket.

Nothing. Wake has his receivers blanketed, and now the pocket is deteriorating by the millisecond. But Shinskie, unfazed, takes a moment to gather himself before taking two confident steps forward and firing a spiral into the chest of a streaking Rich Gunnell. Fourteen yards. First down Eagles, and three plays later, Aponavicius nails what would become the 23-yard game-winning field goal.

"I just went out there and had fun," Shinskie said. "When we're rolling and doing well, we're having fun and everyone's clicking. So I was just having a good time out there."

2. McLaughlin's back, and only getting better

Taking the field for the first time since tearing his Achilles, McLaughlin registered only four tackles, but made at least three major plays to help will the Eagles to victory:

  • First quarter: On Wake's first play from scrimmage, the Demon Deacons tried to get sneaky with a reverse to wide receiver Devon Brown. It was well-blocked, but McLaughlin wasn't taking the bait. He zeroed in on Brown and stopped the speedy receiver after only a 2-yard gain. The crowd erupted and the Eagles rode the momentum to force a three-and-out.
  • Second quarter: BC was up 10-7 with under a minute left in the half. Wake had the ball, third-and-12 on the Eagles' 13. Quarterback Riley Skinner faded back to pass, taking shelter behind his blocking fullback, but then McLaughlin came into the picture and flushed Skinner out to his left, where he rushed a throw to receiver Marshall Williams. It was complete, but short of the first down. Wake settled for a field goal.
  • Third quarter: BC led 17-10, and Wake had the ball on third-and-2 at midfield. Running back Josh Adams took the handoff but was met by McLaughlin in the backfield. He was dropped for 2-yard loss and Wake was forced to punt.

    "After I made the first couple plays, I got myself back into it pretty quickly," McLaughlin said of his performance, "but I'm going to see tomorrow that I made a bunch of mistakes. It's just a matter of fixing it, but I think it felt pretty good."

3. Don't kill O-line U quite yet

With preseason all-conference selections Matt Tennant and Anthony Castonzo leading the offensive line, it looked like the unit would serve as a major strength for the 2009 squad. But after last week's embarrassing loss to Clemson, Spaziani was less than thrilled with the play of his front five:

"[Clemson has] good people over there," Spaziani said. "They manhandled us, and I would like to think we are better than that. We have to get it corrected and do better."

The Eagles certainly got the message. Against Wake, the offensive line formed an impenetrable force around Shinskie, surrendering zero sacks, and paved the way for running backs Montel Harris and Josh Haden, who amassed an impressive 172 combined yards on the ground.

"We've made some progress," Spaziani said. "We still have a long way to go, but they should be proud of themselves for making that progress."

Said Tennant, "I was clearly upset after the way we performed against Clemson and I wanted to come out and make a statement that this is the same Boston College offensive line that it has been for many years."

Statement made.

The bad

1. Where's the pressure?

While Wake Forest had its issues getting to Shinskie, the BC defensive line was equally frustrated in its attempts to pressure Skinner. The Deacons' QB went 25-of-35 for 354 yards, which was in large part due to his ability to set up camp inside the pocket. When you give a QB like Skinner that type of time, you're asking to get burned -- which the Eagles' D did on more than one occasion.

"I see a lot of Matt Ryan in him," McLaughlin said, "and that's scary."

But as talented as Skinner may be, any ACC quarterback's liable to go Matty Ice on you when he's given all day to set up.

2. Getting away with the big play

Seventy-six, 58 and 38 yards.

That's three huge plays given up by the BC defense, but amazingly, only one resulted in points for Wake -- the 76-yarder was a touchdown run by sophomore Brandon Pendergrass.

The 58- and 38-yarders were both of the passing variety, and surely a result of the lack of pressure, but on Skinner's 58-yard connection with Brown, sophomore cornerback Donnie Fletcher took an awful route to the ball.

3. The mistake that almost cost them

While the game was ultimately decided on an overtime mistake by the Demon Deacons, it was a mental error on the BC side that helped send it into the extra frame.

Harris' failure to stay in-bounds on a third-and-13 carry in the fourth quarter stopped the clock for Wake and tacked 30 valuable seconds onto their final drive.

"I tried to stop before the sidelines but I slipped and went out of bounds. It was a bad mistake," Harris said.

Indeed, and one the Eagles are lucky to be able to learn from in victory, instead of spending the rest of the week having to lament over what could have been.

"We'll learn from this game and move forward," Spaziani said, "but it's always better to learn when you win."

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