- Jorge Milian
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You can dispute whether Matt Ryan is the best quarterback in the ACC.
But there is no arguing that the Boston College junior is the toughest quarterback in the conference.
Despite a battered left foot that has made his availability a question mark for virtually every BC game this season, Ryan has been outstanding while leading the Eagles (7-1, 3-1 Atlantic) to a No. 16 national ranking and the school's best start since 1992 heading into Saturday's crucial ACC showdown with No. 22 Wake Forest (7-1, 3-1 Atlantic) in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Ryan sprained his left ankle against Central Michigan in the season opener and then sustained further injury to the foot against Virginia Tech on Oct. 12. The injuries have caused the 6-foot-5, 221-pound native of Exton, Pa., to spend much of the season in a walking boot. But he did not miss any playing time until BC coach Tom O'Brien decided to sit Ryan in Saturday's 41-0 demolition of Buffalo.
"It's something that every football player goes through," said Ryan, who has a 12-2 record as a starter. "Once you get late into the season, everybody's nicked up and banged up. Sometimes the quarterback gets a little more attention than everybody else. It's been tough, but I've been playing well and the team's been playing pretty well, so I'm just excited that I've been able to get out on the field."
Opponents haven't been nearly as thrilled. Despite playing with a new set of receivers and a running game that has been relatively sluggish, Ryan leads the ACC by a wide margin in passing average (237.3 ypg) and total offense (237.9 ypg). He has also completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and thrown for nine touchdowns, but his most impressive statistic may be his smallest. Ryan has thrown only four interceptions while attempting a league-high 241 passes.
"Matt's favorite receiver is the open guy," said senior Tony Gonzalez, who ranks tied for second in the ACC with four touchdown receptions. "He's great at making decisions. That shows up in his stats."
Ryan's toughness isn't measured by numbers, but in the respect he's gained from his teammates and coaches.
It first became obvious to those around him that Ryan wasn't the typical quarterback in last season's game against Clemson. Ryan received a helmet-flying, sternum-shaking hit in the first half from Tigers linebacker David Dunham that had onlookers checking their own dental work.
How did Ryan fare?
He returned after missing a couple of plays and threw for 221 yards while leading the Eagles to a 16-13 overtime win in Death Valley.
"When he took the hit at Clemson and came back and won the football game, he won a lot of respect from his teammates," O'Brien said.
Among those was Gonzalez.
"That to us was the first time we've seen it, and that's when we knew what kind of toughness he had as a quarterback," Gonzalez said. "Everybody on our team remembers that hit, and everybody remembers him bouncing back up and leading us to the victory."
But Ryan, whose uncle John Loughery (1979-82) also played quarterback at BC, is more than just a tough guy. He can play.
Ryan was the difference in BC's first three games, a seven-point win against Central Michigan and a pair of overtime victories against Clemson and Brigham Young. He completed a combined 83-of-134 passes for 891 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions.
After the Eagles lost a heartbreaker to North Carolina State on Sept. 23, Ryan helped BC bounce back two weeks later with a dominating performance during a 22-3 win on Thursday night against Virginia Tech in Chestnut Hill. Despite limited mobility due to the foot injury, Ryan completed 16-of-29 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The win helped the Eagles move back into The Associated Press Top 25.
"Sometimes during games, you look at his face and you can tell his foot is bothering him pretty good. But he does the same thing every time -- he just fights through it and keeps playing."
-- Eagles' receiver Tony Gonzalez on QB Matt Ryan
"I think we knew we had a good team, but I don't think that there were a lot of people out there that knew that," Ryan said of the Virginia Tech game. "But when you play on Thursday night [on ESPN], everybody gets a chance to see that."
Ryan's availability for the following week's game against Florida State was in question until game time, but he played and passed for 262 yards as the Eagles scored a signature victory in Tallahassee.
"Sometimes during games, you look at his face and you can tell his foot is bothering him pretty good," Gonzalez said. "But he does the same thing every time -- he just fights through it and keeps playing."
Ryan said on Wednesday that he "felt good" and expected to be fine for Saturday's game against the Demon Deacons.
That's definitely bad news for Wake, which is very familiar with Ryan.
In last season's game between these teams, Ryan came off the bench in relief of starter Quinton Porter to throw two touchdown passes in the final 2:30 and lead BC to a 35-30 win in Chestnut Hill.
Ryan has been no less heroic for BC this season.
"He's our offense," O'Brien said. "He's the focal point of everything. As long as he can play, he gives us a chance. There's not a quarterback in the conference I've seen that's better than him."
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is leading Boston College not only with his arm but also with the respect he's earned from his toughness.