The Top 10: BC Football Year In Review
|01.02.10 at 9:26 pm ET|
It was an interesting year for the Boston College football program. The year started with controversy as coach Jeff Jagodzinski pursued a job in the NFL which, in turn, cost him his job in Chestnut Hill. He was replaced by a longtime loyal soldier, defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who took over a program in a serious state of transition. The spring would bring a series of bad news as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Mark Herzlich, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma and was forced to miss the entire season. On top of that, BC learned that defensive captain and middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin tore his Achilles tendon and starting quarterback Dominique Davis had to transfer out of the program for academic reasons. It looked like the Eagles ship was sunk before it could ever got off the docks.
June brought more interesting news, though this was of a better sort. A new potential starting quarterback. Dave Shinskie, a 25-year-old minor league relief pitcher, was quitting baseball and enrolling at BC. News was quiet for a time until training camp started and the team learned that McLaughlin’s likely replacement, Will Thompson, had a pulled nerve in his neck and shoulder and would miss a good portion of the season. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Spaziani had to turn to some of his raw recruits to fill the void at the linebacker position and in doing so he found true freshman Luke Kuechly to be more than up to the task. Kuechly turned out to be an OK football player — 142 regular-season tackles (11.83 a game, good for second in the nation) — and found his way on to the all-ACC Defensive Team and was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Let’s take a look at the year that was in Chestnut Hill.
SPAZIANI REPLACES JAGODZINSKI AS COACH
“Coach Spaz” spent 12 years roaming the sidelines at Alumni Stadium waiting for this opportunity. He started as the running backs coach in 1997 before taking over as defensive coordinator in 1999. Between then and the time he was named head coach on Jan. 13, Spaziani consistently fielded some of the top defenses in the country. The groups consisted of feisty ballhawks who were stingy with points and rough on opposing quarterbacks. Spaziani was passed up for the head coaching job after Tom O’Brien left after 10 years for NC State in 2006. The job went to Jagodzinski, who went 20-8 with the Eagles before getting fired for interviewing for the vacant New York Jets head spot after he was told that he would be dismissed if he did so. When it came time to hire a new head man, athletic director Gene DeFilippo looked at a variety of candidates before staying in house for his most loyal man, Spaziani.
“You have to go through a process because you have to make sure that you’re hiring the best football coach that you can hire,” DeFilippo said to reporters at the time, “and when the best football coach that you can possibly hire is already on your staff, that’s a huge advantage because now he can hit the ground running.”
QUESTIONS ABOUND IN CAMP
There was a plethora of questions for the Eagles at the start of training camp. Of the three freshman quarterbacks, who would be the starter come Game 1 against Northeastern? Where were the bodies on the defensive line? Where were the bodies at linebacker?
Spaziani and company toyed with various concepts and ideas through camp and the first two weeks of the season, mostly because they could afford to do it at the time. The first two games of the season were against hapless (and now defunct) Northeastern and Mid-American Conference also-ran Kent State. Things played out with redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle getting the nod in the first three games at quarterback and Kuechly doing the same at middle linebacker, and the defensive line spots were assumed by a rotation of Alex Albright, Damik Scafe, Austin Giles, Nick Rossi and Jim Ramella, depending on who was healthy and playing well at the time.
After a Week 3 shellacking on the road at the hands of eventual ACC Atlantic Division champion Clemson, things started to change on the gridiron at Chestnut Hill.
SHINSKIE BECOMES FULL-TIME STARTER
In Week 4, Shinskie leapfrogged Tuggle on the depth chart and the 25-year-old freshman took the job and never looked back. The former baseball player may have been named the starter against Northeastern, but his development was hampered in training camp when his ribs were cracked on a hit during a scrimmage. Shinskie saw time in the first three games, but it looked like Spaziani wanted to see what Tuggle could bring to the table as the only quarterback that had spent anytime in the system as a redshirt (Mike Marscovetra and Shinskie were true freshmen while junior Codi Boek was a transfer).
In his first game as the starter, Shinskie performed reasonably well, going 18-for-29 for 228 yards with three touchdowns and an interception against Wake Forest in a game that the Eagles won in dramatic fashion.
EAGLES STAND TALL ON THE GOAL LINE
A distinct theme for BC all year was its ability to keep a driving opponent out of the end zone. There was no bigger example of that than Week 4 when the Eagles and Demon Deacons went to overtime to decide a back-and-forth contest. BC had gone up early, only to squander the lead in the final minutes to one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Riley Skinner.
The Eagles started overtime with a Steve Aponavicius field goal. All they needed to do then was to keep Skinner and company off the board to secure their first ACC victory of the year. At first it did not look like that was going to happen. The Demon Deacons ran four straight running plays to get to the 4-yard line and it seemed like they would march straight in to break BC’s heart. On the fifth play of the series Skinner dropped back to hand the ball off but nobody was in the backfield to accept. The quarterback was forced out of the pocket and was targeted by safety Isaac Johnson, who stripped the ball from Skinner. It was recovered by junior Wes Davis to put a sudden end to the game.
“We were on the ropes, we were on the ropes. Certainly, it was a first-and-goal on the 5 and just trying to make a play,” Spaziani said after the game. “It looked like a little confusion and we were aggressive. Confusion and being aggressive and something good happened for us.”
It was the biggest stop of the year for BC, but it was just one of many that led to a surprising 8-5 record for a team that was predicted to finish near the bottom of the conference. The Eagles also had goal-line stops in losses to Clemson and Notre Dame as well as in a win against Florida State. There were other big stops in wins, such as against Virginia and Maryland, and the ability to buckle down at the right time was a big factor in the Eagles’ success.
HERZLICH ANNOUNCES ON ESPN COLLEGE GAMEDAY THAT HE IS “99 PERCENT CANCER-FREE”
2009 was supposed to be Herzlich’s crowning year as the definitive linebacker in BC history. He was coming off a season in which he was ACC Defensive Player of the Year and headed into his senior season ready to be the on-field heart of the Eagles. His plans were derailed in the spring when doctors found a tumor in his leg and said that he had cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, and that his life, let alone playing career, was in jeopardy. Herzlich battled through chemotherapy and radiation treatments to beat the disease and the rest of the college football nation took heart and helped him along the way. Just about every team that Boston College played in 2009 had a check for Herzlich and Uplifting Athletes, a charity to help athletes who have been diagnosed with cancer. Notre Dame gave the foundation $10,094 which included a personal check from coach Charlie Weis for $5,094. A total of $170,000 was raised for the foundation through BC’s charitable efforts, the ACC and opposing teams. He also won an Honorary Lott Trophy and a Disney Spirit Award for his strength of character during the fight with the disease.
A heartwarming moment came on Oct. 3 when ESPN College GameDay came to Chestnut Hill and Herzlich announced live to the nation that he had all but beaten the disease. Since then, he had his last chemotherapy session in early November and had surgery to place a titanium rod into his leg to strengthen it where the radiation left it weak. Herzlich took a medical redshirt year and expects to be roaming the gridiron for the Eagles next season.
MONTEL HARRIS GOES BIG TIME
Sophomore running back Montel Harris has played with a big chip on his shoulder since arriving in Chestnut Hill two years ago. He was not the most sought-after recruit, and even when he got to the Heights he was not the first name mentioned on the running back carousel. At first that title was held by fellow sophomore Josh Haden. Together the duo provided a formidable combination for BC, especially in a year where the storylines were more focused on freshman quarterbacks. The two were called the “1-2 Punch” because Haden wore No. 1 and Harris No. 2 (though the situation was reversed on the depth chart) or, as we dubbed them in the BC Blog, the Horse & Hound.
Harris was the Horse, and it turned out that he was aptly named. Haden sprained his ankle late in the Florida State game and was unavailable when NC State and former BC coach Tom O’Brien came to town. The Eagles, despite the notion that the Wolfpack secondary was ripe for the plucking, went to the ground game and unleashed Harris to hit NC State hard.
What ensued was a 52-20 trouncing in which Harris broke two prominent school records — most touchdowns in a game and most rushing yards in a game. The 26 carries for 264 net yards and five touchdowns was the launching pad for the Eagles offense, and letting Harris run free became the calling card (for the most part) for the rest of the season.
“What can I say? You don’t see that every day. I don’t see that in practice,” Spaziani said after the game. “You know, 264 yards, five touchdowns. I guess I give him a sticker? That’s a sticker.”
For the oft-understated Spaziani, that may have been the understatement of the year.
HADEN AND TUGGLE TRANSFER
After the Notre Dame loss, BC suffered a couple of additional blows to the team psyche. Justin Tuggle, who had dropped to the third spot on the depth chart after the Virginia Tech loss, in which Marscovetra backed up Shinskie, decided it was time to cut bait and get out of Chestnut Hill while he still had plenty of eligibility. In the larger scheme of things, this did not really surprise many of the pundits or coaches. Tuggle felt he had the ability to be the starter at BC, and if that was not to be, he was going to go somewhere else for that opportunity.
In the same vein, Haden decided it was time to leave the Heights as well. After coming in as the hot recruit, he gradually lost carries to Harris. After he injured his ankle and watched from the sidelines as Harris began breaking school records and putting up great numbers, Haden figured that he would go find another program for which to play. Unlike the Tuggle decision, this was a big surprise to just about everybody. After all, Haden was just a twisted ankle away from taking the job himself.
The biggest surprise was the midseason timing of the transfers. Nobody ever wants to see teammates give up on a season, which a lot of the BC players felt like Tuggle and Haden did.
“It was pretty much a shot out of the blue,” senior co-captain Rich Gunnell said. “Like, Tuggle, I didn’t know he was leaving or anything, and Josh, he got hurt and wasn’t too happy, so you could kind of foresee that maybe he was thinking about leaving.”
APONAVICIUS BECOMES BC’S ALL-TIME POINTS LEADER
The legend of senior kicker Steve “Sid Vicious” Aponavicius will have a long life in the football lore at Boston College. As a fan Aponavicius painted his body for the 2005 season-opener against Army and was a hit in the stands. Sometime after that game he was on the field at Alumni Stadium kicking field goals with a $10 tee when a graduate assistant noticed him. Aponavicius was offered a chance to walk on to the team and he did. At first, the players did not know his name, so they nicknamed him “Sid Vicious.”
On Halloween against Central Michigan, Aponavicius hit an extra point after a Harris touchdown to become the all-time points leader in BC’s long history. It was a touching moment for the kicker and the program to see one of the good guys make his way from fan to the field to the history books.
“He gets another hall pass. He gets to sit in the principal’s office now,” Spaziani said after the game. “I think it is tremendous, it really is. It is a great story. A guy who dropped out of the student body and after a lot of hard work and a lot of time and energy to become the all-time leading scorer. That is a great accomplishment that he can be proud of and we are very, very happy for him.”
KUECHLY TACKLES 19 TAR HEELS
One of the only good storylines to come out of BC’s loss at home against North Carolina that took the Eagles out of the hunt for a third straight trip to the ACC championship game was the inspired play of the freshman linebacker Kuechly. The defense played well in the game, only to be undercut by the offense giving up points to the Tar Heels defense by the fistful. Kuechly did his part, making 19 tackles (8 solo, 11 assisted) for a career day that seemed like it was just a bat of the eye for the softspoken linebacker from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.
Nineteen tackles is an impressive number no matter the level. The Clark Kent doppelganger made it all look easy. His instincts on the football field are excellent and his game IQ is high and getting higher with each game he plays. Look for him to come out for his sophomore year with a couple of pounds of extra muscle and team with Herzlich to make an impressive linebacker duo for an Eagles squad that, at the beginning of this season, had no idea who would be manning those positions in 2010.
GUNNELL CAPS CAREER AS ALL-TIME LEADING RECEIVER
Gunnell has been the quiet leader of BC for the last couple of seasons. This season, the senior co-captain was the active ACC leader in receptions (and 20th in the nation) and had a personal chase at some of BC’s biggest receiving records. In the last game of the year, the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco against USC, Gunnell finally caught one of the records when he caught a 61-yard touchdown pass from Shinskie that sent him to the top of the all-time receiving yards list, ahead of Pete Mitchell (1991-94).
It was a fitting end for Gunnell, a reward that he can take with him to the next level. He can always look back at his time at the Heights and say “Yeah, I was one of the best.” It is a record that should hold for some time, just as Mitchell’s stood since 1994.