- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Matt Ryan just has that aura about him. Unfortunately for Clemson, so do the Tigers.
Give Ryan a few minutes on the clock, a field to drive and the game on the line -- and there's nobody better in college football.
Give Clemson a clear path to the ACC championship game, a home crowd rocking at the decibel level of an AC/DC concert and a chance to finally break through under Tommy Bowden -- and it's the same, ol' Tigers.
Ryan broke the Tigers' hearts on Saturday night at Death Valley by doing what he does best. His 43-yard touchdown pass to Rich Gunnell with 1:46 to play sent the Tigers packing 20-17 and propelled the Eagles into the ACC championship game on Dec. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Was it enough to propel Ryan back to the top of the Heisman Trophy race?
Everybody who was part of it -- on either side -- sure thinks so.
"If you give him one down and take even one play off, he can hurt you," lamented Bowden, whose Tigers will have to play the "what if" game for the third straight year after sniffing the ACC championship game, but not doing enough to get there.
"You can sack him, but he's going to bounce back. He's tall and scrambles. We were able to get good pressure, though. He's a great player. We were beaten by the best quarterback in the nation."
Similar to the Virginia Tech game-winner three weeks ago, Ryan worked his magic on the run. This time, he was flushed right on a third-and-7 play and was just trying to pick up the first down. With a pair of Clemson defenders bearing down on him, he didn't like what he saw in front of him.
"I took a peek back and just caught Rich Gunnell out of the corner of my eye breaking toward the end zone," said Ryan, who improved to 23-6 as a starter.
It's something Ryan had talked to his teammates about at halftime. He'd noticed that Clemson tended to lose coverage on underneath routes that broke deep in rollout and scramble situations.
"I was not surprised to see him come open, but I was excited to see him come open," said Ryan, looking more like he'd just come from a massage late Saturday night than an emotionally charged football game that had just decided the ACC's Atlantic Division.
His offensive coordinator, Steve Logan, admits that he's biased. But if Ryan isn't on the short list for the Heisman Trophy, then Logan wonders why even have the award.
"You see these guys come along from time to time," Logan said. "That last minute or two of the game when they have the ball in their hands, you better sit tight because they just have a way.
"If he's not one of the top one or two guys [in the Heisman race], I don't know what in the world you're looking for. You can go find better numbers maybe ... but not a better player."
The race Ryan was most concerned about is over, the Atlantic Division race. After the regular-season finale this Saturday against Miami, the Eagles will play for their first ACC title against the winner of the Virginia-Virginia Tech game.
After two straight losses, one of those an inexplicable 42-35 setback at Maryland last week, it was difficult to predict this kind of performance from the Eagles on Saturday in one of the most hostile environments in college football.
But as Boston College linebacker Jolonn Dunbar joked, the Tigers simply left too much time on the clock after Cullen Harper's 4-yard touchdown run staked them to a 17-13 lead with 5:28 remaining.
"It was almost like a Virginia Tech replay," Dunbar said. "Just give Matt the ball back, and he'll make something happen. Five minutes is too much time, way too much time for Matt Ryan."
Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski said it wasn't up to him whether or not Ryan vaulted back to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race. But he is sure of one thing.
"He's an operator back there and a hell of a football player," Jagodzinski said. "I'm just glad we've got him."
Ryan said the story of the game was the Eagles' defense, which held the Tigers to 273 total yards, their second lowest output of the season. It's also a Boston College defense that was playing short-handed without injured senior cornerback DeJuan Tribble. What's more, Dunbar -- the Eagles' emotional leader on defense -- was severely limited with a high ankle sprain he suffered in the Florida State game.
"With all the injuries that they've gone through and to hold Clemson to 17 points after they've scored a ton of points this season ... they did a phenomenal job," Ryan said. "The defense was the heart and soul of our team and got us going."
They weren't shabby at the end, either.
Roderick Rollins' 7-yard sack of Harper on third down in the final seconds pushed a potentially game-tying field goal attempt from 47 yards back to 54 yards. Sure enough, Mark Buchholz's 54-yard attempt to force overtime was about 7 or 8 yards short.
The hardest part for Ryan was watching from the sidelines.
"That's the toughest thing as a competitor," he said. "You want to be out on the field when the game's on the line. But I had a lot of confidence in our defense.
"We got it into the fourth quarter, and we won the fourth quarter. That's what we wanted."
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
48mSam Khan Jr.
3hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information