5 takeaways as Boston College nearly stuns No. 1 Clemson but falls short

The Eagles proved they can hang with anybody, but they're not looking for any moral victories.

Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec passes the ball near Clemson defensive lineman Bryan Bresee .
Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec passes the ball near Clemson defensive lineman Bryan Bresee . –Josh Morgan/Pool Photo via AP

COMMENTARY

In the days leading up to the Eagles’ trip to Death Valley, Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley made sure his team prepared exactly as it would for any other game.

If BC had to put more effort, and more attention to detail, into facing Clemson, Hafley said, then that would mean he’s failed as a head coach. Whether the opponent is ranked 127th or first, he added, the approach doesn’t change and the mindset is the same.

“I don’t have to make a big deal of it,” Hafley said Wednesday. “I’m not having these whole long speeches about shocking the world. That’s not how I coach.”

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When they arrived at Clemson Memorial Stadium on Saturday, it was clear the Eagles were focused, energized, and not overwhelmed by the opportunity. They played with confidence and poise that’s been present the bulk of the season, giving the Tigers a major scare and nearly earning their first upset over the No. 1 team in the country since 1993.

Boston College (4-3, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) bolted out to a double-digit halftime lead, but Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC) ripped off 24 unanswered points to rally for a 34-28 victory. Brandon Sebastian returned a fumble 97 yards for a touchdown, John Tessitore executed a trick play to perfection, and CJ Lewis hauled in a highlight-reel catch for the Eagles, but the Trevor Lawrence-less Tigers outscored them 21-0 in the second half to survive. 

“Anybody who watched this team play today, anybody who watched the confidence of this team, anyone who watched and could see how much these kids love each other, and everything they’re giving, then they should see what’s coming, because we are,” Hafley said. 

Trevor Lawrence’s COVID-19 diagnosis didn’t change BC’s approach.

When the quarterback Lawrence – a Heisman Trophy candidate and the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft – was diagnosed with COVID-19 and ruled out Thursday, the Eagles’ chances unquestionably increased exponentially.

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BC was still viewed as the heavy underdog, but facing a true freshman quarterback in DJ Uiagalelei was certainly a less daunting task than trying to contain Lawrence. Even so, the Eagles’ game plan remained to try to stop running back Travis Etienne and keep the Tigers off the field as much as possible. Hafley said he never even discussed the fact that Lawrence wasn’t playing with the team.

“Coming from a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for a lot of the year last year (Ohio State), a lot of times the game is won before it’s played,” Hafley said. “(Clemson) beats people before the game is even played, because people don’t believe. What these kids showed today is that they believe in each other.”

Lewis echoed Hafley’s thoughts. This game, they agreed, was more so about them playing to their potential and proving they belonged than which players the Tigers had and which ones they didn’t have.

“Every week, we want to come out here and prove a point,” Lewis said. “BC always gets the bottom of the barrel, so we always play with a chip on our shoulder. We wanted to come out here and show the world that we can play with the top dogs.”

The Eagles took it to Clemson to start.

Even the most optimistic of Boston College fans couldn’t have anticipated the way Saturday’s matinee began.

Quarterback Phil Jurkovec hit Zay Flowers for an 11-yard score less than two minutes into the game. Clemson responded with a touchdown, then David Bailey muscled his way into the end zone from 2 yards out to make it 14-7 Eagles with 8:41 left in the first quarter.

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That’s when it really got crazy. Clemson had the ball a few feet from the end zone, but a botched handoff and fumble gave BC a chance. Brandon Sebastian swooped in, scooped the ball up, and sprinted the length of the field to extend the Eagles’ lead to 21-7 early in the second quarter. It resulted in a massive 14-point swing, and it was also the moment when it became fully evident that an upset was truly possible.

“I’m just really proud of the way we played, in a game where probably nobody gave us a chance to win the game or probably be on the same field with them,” Hafley said. “Our guys came out with confidence. They came out believing in each other, they came out believing in their coaching staff. I thought the coaches did an unbelievable job with the game plan, and we took it to the No. 1 team in the country.”

Joe and John Tessitore provided a wholesome father-son moment.

Boston College wasn’t done there. The Eagles orchestrated a long, methodical drive late in the half that was a stark contrast from the way they started the game from a visual standpoint.

On fourth and 2, from the Clemson 23, redshirt sophomore John Tessitore came into the game, rushed up to the line of scrimmage and was able to draw the Tigers offsides and give the Eagles a new set of downs.

Jurkovec then found Lewis for a scintillating TD catch, pushing the margin to 28-10. Clemson added a field goal with seven seconds left to make it 28-13 BC at the half, but the sequence that started with Tessitore’s shrewdness gave the Eagles a major boost.

The play carried extra significance because Tessitore’s father, Joe Tessitore, was calling the game for ABC. Both Tessitores remained remarkably composed despite the chaos, and the Tessitore to Tessitore energy was very strong.

Hafley said the Eagles had a plan in place to try to get Clemson to jump, and they knew they’d go for it if it didn’t work. It did work, and it kept the momentum rolling.

“It felt like the perfect opportunity to call it,” Hafley said.

Clemson responded with a furious comeback to seize control.

A game that initially looked like it might yield the biggest upset of the college football season quickly evolved into a valiant comeback from a perennial juggernaut.

There’s a reason the Tigers are consistently contenders, and they proved they’re a whole lot more than just Lawrence.

Uiagalelei ignited the rally with a 30-yard TD run early in the third quarter, then on the next drive, Uiagalelei found Amari Rodgers for an 8-yard score. The 2-point attempt was no good, but Clemson suddenly trailed just 28-26 and had all the momentum.

Etienne – a player Hafley called the best running back in the country who also became the ACC’s all-time leading rusher on the day – delivered a 17-yard TD run to give the Tigers their first lead, 32-28, with 11:34 left in the fourth.

BC had several opportunities to reclaim the lead, but none materialized. Midway through the quarter, Jurkovec had the wind knocked out of him and backup Dennis Grosel entered and completed a crucial pass on fourth down to keep a drive alive.

Hafley called it probably his favorite moment of the game, and he believes a play like that epitomizes what the Eagles are trying to do big-picture.

“A guy who started last year, gets beat out, watches Phil get all the accolades, all he does is stick to his job,” Hafley said. “That’s what this team is all about, so when it’s his time, he knows the play, he knows what he’s doing.”

Jurkovec re-entered, and the Eagles turned it over on downs. The BC defense gave the offense one more chance – stopping the Tigers on third and 1 and forcing a punt – but Jurkovec lost the ball in the end zone, and a safety and ensuing unsuccessful onside kick ended the Eagles’ chances at an upset.

The Eagles proved they can hang with anybody, but they’re not looking for any moral victories.

With a game like this, it’s important to acknowledge both sides of the equation.

On the one hand, the Eagles looked outstanding in the first half and built a sizable lead against the No. 1 team in the nation. On the other, once they had that lead, they squandered it and missed out on a major opportunity.

Afterward, Hafley and the players approached the loss with the same mentality they had coming into the day. They credited Clemson for executing, but they’re well aware they had their chances.

This was a brutal loss for a team trying establish itself as a powerhouse, but it isn’t the end of the world. The Eagles are still 4-3 overall, and will be favored next week against Syracuse. Saturday proved to the country what they already knew themselves.

When asked if this game showed that BC can play with anybody, Jurkovec had a measured and confident response.

“Yeah, it does. It shows us that, but we already knew that,” Jurkovec said. “We won’t take any moral victories. We were up big in the first half, and we let them come back. Close isn’t good enough. I think we will get better from this.”

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