JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The final seconds had ticked off the clock and Matt Ryan was trying to keep his composure as several Virginia Tech players came by and offered congratulations for a season's worth of work.
The Boston College quarterback is probably going to Disney World. But neither he nor his teammates were anything close to happy about a likely trip to the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 28 for a play date with a Big Ten team.
Ryan and the Eagles wanted more than that - South Beach in Miami and a trip to the Orange
Bowl Jan. 3, a reward hat would have been theirs if they had taken care of business yesterday in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against a Virginia Tech team they already had beaten this season.
The Eagles tried mightily but were defeated, 30-16, ruining the chance for their first ACC championship and first Bowl Championship Series berth.
BC (10-3) jumped on the Hokies from the start, taking leads of 10-0 and 16-9. But the final minutes of the first half and almost all of the second half were a much different story as Tech battled into a tie at halftime (16-16), grabbed the lead in the fourth quarter, and came away with the victory.
Championship dreams are over for the Eagles and for a group of seniors who had committed themselves to finally breaking through the barrier that kept them one level short of their ultimate goal.
"It's a setback in terms of the program and it's a setback for our personal goals," said BC linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, part of a 22-member senior class that was intent on raising the bar at the school. "They made plays when it was time for them to make plays."
"We didn't make enough plays," echoed first-year BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski. "And they made them when it counted."
Small plays. Big plays. Take the first half, when a 14-yard run for a TD by Ryan had given the Eagles a 16-7 lead, which should have been 17-7 with a Steve Aponavicius extra point. But BC was facing a Frank Beamer-coached squad, with its emphasis on special teams.
The Hokies already had blocked an Aponavicius field goal attempt. Then they blocked the extra point, and not only that, but Brandon Flowers returned it for a 2-point defensive conversion.
Instead of 17-7, it was 16-9, and then the Hokies (11-2), led by quarterback Sean Glennon, went on a 10-play, 80-yard drive. It ended with Glennon, who threw three touchdown passes and was the game's Most Valuable Player, connecting with Josh Hyman for a 13-yard game-tying TD pass.
"Frustrating" was Jagodzinski's description of everything from the halftime score to the blocked extra point and field goal, which came with a substitute long snapper, Mike McLaughlin. "The ball was too slow getting back there," Jagodzinski told ABC at halftime.
But it was more than slow snaps. It was missed opportunities, and it was Tech playing like a championship team, a team that knew how to get where it wanted to get better than the Eagles did.
"They executed better than we did, especially in the second half," said defensive end Nick Larkin. "And we came up short on third downs. To be a champion, you've got to get that done."
Two of BC's drives in the third quarter produced a total of minus-13 yards. The Eagles didn't get their first first down of the second half until there were five minutes remaining in the game and Tech had broken the tie when Glennon tossed his third scoring pass to give the Hokies a 23-16 lead with 7:12 remaining.
There was more than enough time for BC to come back, especially with Ryan, who had scored twice in half the time in BC's 14-10 victory over the Hokies in Blacksburg Oct. 25.
Not this time, although Ryan had the Eagles fans who were part of the announced Municipal Stadium crowd of 53,212 hoping for an encore of Blacksburg, or the final-minute comeback last month against Clemson that made the Eagles the ACC Atlantic Division champions.
Ryan, who finished 33 of 52 for 305 yards, two interceptions, and one (rushing) TD, brought the Eagles down the field. A 19-yard first-down pass to Kevin Challenger to the VT 19 seemed like it might be more until Hokies roverback Kam Chancellor made a TD-saving tackle.
"I thought I was clear," said Challenger. "But he made a great play."
Four plays later, linebacker Vince Hall - who missed the first BC game with an injury - intercepted Ryan on a fourth-and-4 at the Tech 13 to end the drive.
"I let out the biggest sigh that I think I have ever let out in my life," said Glennon. "With Matt Ryan and this squad, the game is not over until the final seconds [tick off]."
The Eagles forced a punt, but Xavier Adibi picked off Ryan's desperation heave and returned it 40 yards for a score with 11 seconds to play.
Now BC must regroup for a bowl game in a season that will not include an ACC championship or a BCS berth.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.