Ryan provides cool, confident leadership for undefeated Eagles
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- It's not as if Matt Ryan began the season unknown to the football world. He had been a starter at quarterback for two seasons at Boston College. He has NFL size (6-foot-5, 218 pounds) and good numbers.
And it's not as if Ryan's statistics this season have moved the needle very much off his career averages in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passing efficiency.
But this is not the same No. 12 wearing maroon and gold. No one knew this quarterback, who would absorb a new, NFL-ready offense by midsummer. No one knew that the one stat of Ryan's that would be on a pace to double is the one that counts: touchdown passes. And certainly no one predicted the Eagles would be 7-0 and No. 2 in the nation when they play at No. 8 Virginia Tech on Thursday night (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
"We throw the ball more than we ever did," Ryan said. "As a quarterback, I'm not complaining. It's been a lot of fun."
Ryan is only 35th in the nation in passing efficiency (192-304-6, 2,148 yards, 17 touchdowns, 137.0 rating). But the 17 touchdown passes already surpass the 15 that he threw in 12 games last season.
The reason could be as simple as Ryan's having two healthy feet -- more on that in a moment. However, the more likely reason has everything to do with the coaching change at Boston College.
Out went Tom O'Brien, who wanted a West Coast offense designed by Brooks Brothers. In came head coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who hired a North Carolina talk-show host to run his offense.
OK, so Steve Logan had made a name for himself as the leader in career coaching victories at East Carolina (69-58 during 1992-2002) and spent three seasons in NFL Europe, before he returned to North Carolina and co-hosted a radio show.
Logan's ECU teams had fearless offenses as their trademark. Logan wants his quarterbacks to get out of bed and look downfield. Even though Ryan's 63.2 completion percentage is only marginally higher than his career mark of 62.0 coming into the season, Logan loves Ryan's accuracy.
"There's no doubt that Matt could complete 70 percent in a spread offense throwing bubble screens [quick dump-off passes to a receiver coming across the middle of the field]," Logan said. "We're throwing 18-yard comebacks. The ball is going down the field. To be where he is [in completion percentage] in our style is amazing."
Only once in 11 seasons as a head coach did one of Logan's quarterbacks complete 60 percent of his passes. Now he's got Ryan surpassing that mark.
"I've been real lucky to run into the best quarterback I've ever recruited or run into," Logan said.
This comes from a coach who sent Jeff Blake and David Garrard to the NFL, who coached Dave Ragone and Rohan Davey in NFL Europe.
"I knew Matt was good," Logan said. "I didn't know that he was this good. It's his intellect. When I start out teaching quarterbacks, I tell them, 'You've got to be a good defensive coordinator before you can be a good quarterback so you can understand what the defense is doing.'"
Logan said Ryan understands defenses well enough that he has let him call "three or four" drives from the line of scrimmage this season. In the season opener, when the Eagles fell behind defending ACC champion Wake Forest 14-0, Ryan called the plays on two scoring drives as Boston College rallied for a 38-28 win. Ryan did it again on a touchdown drive in BC's 37-17 victory over North Carolina State.
"If I just get out of the way, he'd score a helluva lot more touchdowns," Logan said. "I could just sit up there and eat hot dogs like everybody else."
Wide receiver Brandon Robinson, who has been Ryan's favorite target (30 catches, 402 yards, four touchdowns) this season, has seen every pitch in his quarterback's repertoire. And there are quite a few.
"He puts the ball in the best place for a receiver to catch it," Robinson said. "In the Georgia Tech game, he put it in the perfect place. I just had to look back and it was like the defensive back wasn't there."
That 39-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass put the Eagles ahead 14-0 on their way to a 24-10 victory.
Ryan gets the offense, and he got it pretty quick. His co-captain, linebacker Jolonn Dunbar, recalled the workouts they organized this past summer.
"He had control of the offense," Dunbar said. "I'm like, 'You've been in it four months. How do you know it?' He was putting in plays. He was checking off. It was funny. I would never have thought he would grasp it so fast."
"Matt is really good at taking shots when they are there," backup quarterback Chris Crane said, "knowing the down and distance, where the first down is and get[ting] some yardage. When the game dictates that we get a big play, Matt can make that happen."
Ryan has a quick smile and a personality people gravitate to. He came from a small high school in the Philadelphia area, and his ties to the Phillies and the Eagles remain strong.
His high school nickname, "Ice," came right up the East Coast with him. Ryan doesn't recall where it came from, but it fits. He has been cool under pressure, and he has been cold when he confronts a problem. Behind Ryan's smiling demeanor there's a hard-bitten coach in waiting.
"If you mess up, he lets you have it," said offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, who has started all 44 games of his college career. "He doesn't pull you aside. He calls you out in front of the whole team. You can't wait for the next play so you can prove it's a mistake."
The good news, his teammates agree, is that Ryan holds himself to that same standard.
"If he makes a mistake, he's hard on himself," Crane said. "That's not often. He demands a lot from everyone."
After what they saw Ryan do last season, his teammates will not question his commitment. His last six starts came on a broken left foot.
"He played the whole season on one foot," Cherilus said, exaggerating only slightly. "Think about it. It makes you want to go out and compete for him. As an offensive line, it makes you feel good knowing if you do your part, he'll do his."
Leadership has been the immeasurable component of Boston College's first-half recipe. The team has 12 starters who already have their degrees. That's 12 starters who have weathered a lot of heartbreak.
"The last three years, we've been one game away from winning the Big East or being in the ACC championship game," cornerback DeJuan Tribble said.
"We know how fast it can be taken away from us," Dunbar said. "It has helped. It's the Patriots' thing. We're going to have some humble pie around here."
Ryan believes that experience will make all the difference, beginning Thursday night in the Blacksburg, Va., hothouse that is Lane Stadium.
"We've got a lot of veteran guys who have been on a highly ranked team on different occasions," Ryan said. "We've been a part of pretty good teams. We know what it takes to win and we know how easy it is to drop one or two games. That veteran leadership helps keep that cocoon tight. You can't let outside influences affect you as a team."
The more the Eagles win, the more their resolve will be tested. The Matt Ryan who is quarterback on this undefeated team has handled everything to this point just fine.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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