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Iceman cometh

For Ryan, history is in the making

BC is in good hands with quarterback Matt Ryan, who is 24-6 as a starter. BC is in good hands with quarterback Matt Ryan, who is 24-6 as a starter. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 30, 2007

Maybe a month from now. That's Matt Ryan's all-purpose answer when he's asked about the history in progress at The Heights. Maybe a month from now he'll reflect upon Boston College's best football season since 1984 and what could be its best record since 1940 and upon all the personal laurels - the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year award, the Heisman candidacy, and his NFL draft prospects.

"Right now, we've set the history aside," said the senior quarterback, who'll lead the 12th-ranked Eagles (10-2) in tomorrow afternoon's rematch with sixth-ranked Virginia Tech (10-2) for the conference title in Jacksonville, Fla. "It's all about winning an ACC championship. We'll worry about all the history and where we fit in after the season's done."

It'll be the biggest game for BC since the "Miracle in Miami," the Flutie-to-Phelan moment that got them to the Cotton Bowl 23 years ago. If they beat the Hokies again (and they're underdogs again), the Eagles will collect their first crown in any conference, earn their first BCS bowl bid, and play in the Orange Bowl for the first time since Mike Holovak scored all the touchdowns.

That's been the unclaimed Holy Grail year after year after year at Chestnut Hill, and now that it's within reach, Ryan has developed tunnel vision. He knows he's still a viable Heisman candidate, even if his stock slipped after BC dropped consecutive games to Florida State and Maryland this month. "It's been very cool to be mentioned with so many great players," Ryan acknowledged. "It's awesome to be mentioned."

And he knows that the buzz around the NFL's clockers and watchers is that Ryan will be a first-round choice in April's draft, possibly by Atlanta. "High and early," predicted Notre Dame coach (and former Patriots offensive coordinator) Charlie Weis. Maybe a month from now, Ryan will start thinking about combines. "There's still a lot of stuff that needs to be done at BC," he said.

Not that he isn't aware of all the chitchat about Matty Ice, the country's coolest customer when time is short. Ryan knows what the other Heisman hopefuls are up to, particularly Mr. Tebow at Florida. He watches ESPN, too. But he can't let watching and wondering distract him from playing.

"You have to separate yourself from everything that is going on," Ryan said. "It's a different world. It's not a natural thing to do and it's not an easy thing to do, but I believe it's the right thing to do. It does take a lot of willpower. People will ask, 'Have you seen this?' And you want to be polite and you smile, but you just can't buy into all of it."

Stay in the moment. That's what everyone who has been there, especially Doug Flutie, has told him. "I've gotten to know Doug pretty well and he's been very nice, always very supportive," said Ryan. "He said just continue not to let the outside stuff wear you down. Just concentrate on playing football and winning games."

That's how Ryan directed his mates to eight straight victories, the best BC start in 65 years, and how he saved the season two weekends ago with a late comeback at Clemson. This is a signal-caller out of the John Paul Jones school. He wins battles after they're declared over.

"He did it against us and he did it against them [Clemson]," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who watched Ryan beat his squad with 11 seconds left in Blacksburg after BC had trailed, 10-0, in the final couple of minutes. "Good quarterbacks welcome that challenge in the last few minutes of the ballgame, and I believe he does."

What Ryan has learned most during his fifth year (he redshirted in 2003) is that as long as there is time on the clock and his team has the ball, there is a chance.

"If you continue to grind, keep your head down, and keep battling, we know what it takes to win games," he said. "We've been in situations the last couple of years where it'd be a big game and we played tough but weren't able to come out on top. A play here and a play there . . ."

Who recalls that Ryan was intercepted twice, sacked thrice, completed fewer than half his passes, and had seven balls tipped against Virginia Tech? What is remembered is that he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Rich Gunnell with 2:11 to play, then a 24-yarder to Andre Callender for the winner. "That's what Heismans do," mused Hokies defensive end Chris Ellis. "They don't ever give up."

If the vote had been held on Halloween, Ryan might well have won the stiff-armed bookend. The Eagles were ranked second in the country behind Ohio State and he was on a "SportsCenter" highlight loop. But BC dropped its next two as Ryan struggled and his Heisman bandwagon lost a wheel.

With the balloting coming up next week, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel, and West Virginia quarterback Pat White are the consensus front-runners.

"No reflection on Ryan, but he had two Heisman plays against Virginia Tech and the rest of the game he was average," said ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso. "People look at that."

But those two moments, plus Ryan's 43-yard touchdown pass to Gunnell with 1:46 to play at Clemson, made the difference between BC playing for the Orange Bowl or checking on flights to Charlotte, Boise, or Nashville, which they've done for the last eight years. Tebow may win the Heisman, but the Gators probably are going to Orlando.

"The benchmark of a good quarterback is if he wins," BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski said earlier in the season. "That's what you're judged on, that's what they remember."

In games Ryan has started, the Eagles are 24-6. For the first time in the program's 114-year history, they've won 10 games in back-to-back seasons. If they win tomorrow, they'll have won 11 for only the second time. They've never won 12.

Along the way, Ryan has scribbled his name in bold face in the BC record book. He holds the season passing record (3,953 yards and counting), the season touchdown passes record (28 and counting), and the career completion record (752), and ranks third behind Flutie and Glenn Foley in career passing yardage (8,759) and TD passes (53). And he already has his diploma, collected last May.

This autumn, Ryan has had the luxury of concentrating nearly exclusively on football. He's taking courses three nights a week (in personal finance, social stratification, and English literature) toward a second major, but everything else is about the art and science of quarterbacking. "I told myself I was going to approach it as a job this year," Ryan said. "You don't want to leave too much up to chance."

His day now has a semiprofessional structure to it. "I'm up fairly early for a college student - probably 8 o'clock," he said. "A quick, light breakfast, watch some tape for an hour. Go to the training room, hop in the hot tub - got to take care of your body. Then meetings, practice, dinner, more tape."

It is, Ryan conceded, an odd feeling. He has graduated, but he has not gone. "It's a funny thing," said Ryan, who lives by himself in an off-campus apartment. "Graduation comes and it's closure, but I started summer class the following night."

He is primarily a football player now, and the extra hours in the film room have provided him with a master's degree not on sheepskin but on pigskin. "It's not to say that I wasn't prepared in the past, but it's just having more time to do the same job," Ryan said. "There's an overall sense of being more comfortable this year."

Much as Flutie before him, Ryan has learned how to slow time and expand space. His defensive teammates understand that if they can keep the Eagles in the game, Matty Ice likely will find a way to win it. "He's done it time and time again," testified cornerback DeJuan Tribble. "You kind of get used to it."

If Ryan and his comrades can do it twice more, they'll find themselves in a lofty aerie where no Eagles before them have perched. Then the quarterback can spend a couple of days browsing through a season's worth of clippings.

"When I was first starting to play here, Mathias Kiwanuka said it's not a good thing always to read your press," Ryan said. "Take a look at the pictures, but don't read what they're saying. So it's something I've steered away from."

Right now, he and his teammates' history at The Heights is still incomplete. When the final gun goes off (and Ryan may be throwing when it does), there'll be time to thumb through the archives and determine where they belong. Maybe a month from now.

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