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Freshman Toal making immediate impact

The Boston College coaching staff was pretty certain it had made the big catch, but then, The Big Fish started to squirm.

Linebackers coach Bill McGovern paced anxiously around his office, intently watching ESPN's coverage of his prize recruit on national signing day.

Head coach Tom O'Brien sat with his fingers crossed at a news conference, where he discussed a class devoid of the bluest of all his blue chips.

Palms began to sweat. Hair follicles turned deep shades of gray. Hearts pumped extra hard.

"You have no control anymore, so you're just sitting, hoping, waiting for this kid to say, 'Boston College,'" said McGovern. "I thought we had him, but I also thought, 'There ain't no such thing as a done deal until that fax comes across with his signature on it.' I'd be lying if I said I was perfectly confident. I was on edge."

Then, at about 5 p.m. ET, the tension that permeated the BC coaching offices evaporated into thin air. Superstar inside linebacker Brian Toal of Wyckoff, N.J. -- who fended off a last-minute urge to play at Miami and an all-day recruiting effort by Rutgers fans -- pulled out a BC shirt formerly worn by his brother and said those two fateful words: "Boston College."

With that, BC landed its biggest recruit ever -- a 6-foot-2, 238-pound son of a coach who runs like the wind and plays like a seasoned all-star. The coaching staff was all but certain that this wunderkind would one day be the linchpin of their defense, but ...

"We didn't know he'd impact us this fast," coordinator Frank Spaziani said.

Or, this impressively.

Nine games into his true freshman season, Toal is the star of a defense that has few equals in college football. He leads the Eagles in tackles with 57 and has helped them establish a No Tolerance Policy when it comes to scoring.

They yield just 13.2 points per game and have held five opponents to a touchdown or less. In their crucial, 36-17, win at West Virginia this past Saturday, the Eagles not only held the Mountaineers to 18 points below their scoring average, but put themselves in the driver's seat for the Big East title and the league's BCS berth.

With remaining games at Temple on Saturday and at home vs. Syracuse on Nov. 27, No. 19 BC (7-2, 4-1 Big East) controls its own destiny.

And, it all starts with that smothering defense.

"We take it personally when somebody gets any kind of points on us -- field goal, touchdown, whatever it is," said Toal, a first-team Parade and USA Today All-American who did not lose a game during his final two seasons at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. "The whole defense gets upset when we see the opposing team putting up numbers. We just get this bad feeling if somebody moves into the red zone on us."

The emergence of Toal, who took over as the starter in Week 5, has elevated the play of those around him. He is exceptionally fast (he runs the 40 in 4.49 seconds), instinctive ("You only have to tell him once," Spaziani said.) and has the football IQ of Brett Favre (What else would you expect from a coach's son?).

Two weeks ago against Rutgers, Toal amassed 15 tackles, including 12 solo, in a 21-10 win in his home state. Against WVU, he not only had eight tackles, but also displayed his fancy footwork. He snatched a short kickoff and effortlessly covered 43 yards to set up a fourth-quarter score.

"You don't have to be in coaching 35 years to know that this kid has all the makings of a star," Spaziani said.

And, you don't have to be in coaching 35 years to know that one player does not make a defense.

"We play as one," said Toal, who panicked before the WVU game upon discovering he forgot the camouflaged undershirt he'd worn since his junior year of high school. (Big brother Greg, a former BC fullback, ultimately came to the rescue with a backup). "All the guys around here have a great approach to the game. When I walked in and saw how serious they were about defense, I knew I came to the right place."

One of the first players to catch Toal's eye was the menacing Mathias Kiwanuka, a 6-foot-7, 261-pound defensive end who leads the Big East in sacks (eight) and tackles for losses (17). Kiwanuka is a quarterback's nightmare, with his frenetic style, monster wingspan and penchant for making big plays. He had two sacks and five tackles for losses against WVU.

"I look over at him sometimes and two or three people are trying to block him," Toal said, laughing. "That makes it a lot easier for the linebackers when so many guys are tied up with Mathias."

Kiwanuka, who has at least one sack in 15 of his last 18 games, is part of a fearsome front four that also features veterans Alvin Washington, Tim Bulman and Phil Mettling.

That quartet controls the line of scrimmage, while the guys behind them clean up the mess.

"They just keep coming at you," said UConn coach Randy Edsall, whose team was held 23 points below its scoring average in a 27-7 loss to the Eagles. "They bring talented guy after talented guy. And that don't have to blitz their linebackers because those guys up front do enough damage."

"That front four just hangs in there, they frustrate you," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose team managed a touchdown and field goal vs. BC. "You think, 'We can do this and that to them,' because they don't do a whole lot, then you look at the scoreboard and you have nothing up there."

BC ranks 19th against the run (112.4) and 20th in total yards allowed (313.89). It has also held five opponents to less than 100 yards rushing and three to less than 300 overall.

Moreover, even when they do yield large chunks of yardage like they did vs. WVU, which had 462, they apply the bend-but-don't-let-them-score philosophy.

"That's the frustrating part," WVU coach Rich Rodriguez said. "You think you have them, but they always find a way to stop you. That's what good defense is all about."

And, it's how championship teams are made.

"No question about that," Toal said. "Because if they can't score, they can't beat you."

Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.