The national media has tried to signal Boston College's downfall ever since Tom O'Brien left Chestnut Hill for Raleigh, N.C., but the Eagles have consistently mocked those attempts over the past three years. If that move toward the Atlantic Division cellar was going to occur, it had to be the 2009 season, right? After all, Boston College's offseason started with the hysterics of second-year head coach Jeff Jagodzinski interviewing for the vacant New York Jets coaching job, knowing full well that in doing so, Boston College athletics director Gene DeFilippo would fire him. Enter former Penn State defensive end and longtime Eagles defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani to lead this program, and all he's done is put Boston College (7-3, 4-2 ACC) in position to return to the ACC Championship game for the third straight year.
The Eagles have won all six home games this season and managed to defeat Virginia in Charlottesville last Saturday for their first road victory. Detractors point to the fact that Boston College's four ACC wins have come against teams with a combined 8-17 league record, but Spaziani's squad can only play the games on its schedule. The Eagles are three-point favorites over the Tar Heels on Saturday and will likely be favored against Maryland in College Park on Nov. 28, setting up a potential 9-3 (6-2 ACC) campaign that no one this side of lunacy would have ever expected.
"Seven is better than six. It just opens the door to a chance for number eight." – Spaziani on getting to seven wins against Virginia last weekend
"It's a unique place to play at Chestnut Hill. It's loud. They had a season where they've played extremely well. We jumped all over Boston College again on videotape [on Sunday] so when players left they would really start to appreciate the challenge that we've got in front of us." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
If you happen to be in the stands at Alumni Stadium on Saturday afternoon and you hear an Eagle player yell out for Uncle Dave, don't strain your neck looking up in the crowd. That player is not shouting for a family member that bummed one of his weekly allotted tickets – instead, he's most likely talking to 25-year-old starting quarterback Dave Shinskie.
While a handful of his teammates were still in middle school, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was working through a seven-year stint in minor league baseball. Shinskie spurned Boston College in 2003 to sign with FCS member Delaware to play both football and baseball, but ultimately was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fourth round. The Kulpmont, Penn. native hovered in Double-A ball before being released by the Toronto Blue Jays in May after posting a career 24-30 record with a 4.61 ERA in 162 outings.
A cracked rib in training camp kept Shinskie on the sidelines while Justin Tuggle started Boston College's first three games, but the elder statesman claimed the starting job against Wake Forest on Sept. 26 and never looked back. The freshman signal caller has completed 109 of his 204 passing attempts for 1,502 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
There's no doubt that his maturity and exposure to professional baseball has helped ease the transition into Division I football, but it hasn't been seamless.
"In football, I still feel like a freshman," said Shinskie, who threw for a school-record 400 completions and 6,334 yards at Mount Carmel Area High School. "But now it's coming easier… It was frustrating the first couple of weeks because I had no clue as to how it was going to turn out."
Then again, as his head coach is quick to point out, baseball and football are completely different sports, so the assumed carryover is often overdone.
"I'm sure his athletic experience has helped but once again, it's a different rattling ¬- people flying at you, hitting you," Spaziani said. "It's different than the ball going over the center field fence or pitching. He's making strides though."
That last sentence could qualify as an understatement, considering Shinskie set a new Boston College freshman touchdown record (12) last weekend and stands just 139 yards short of Glenn Foley's 1990 passing yards mark.
Matchups to Watch
North Carolina's Ground Game vs. Boston College's Run Defense
The Tar Heels' offensive production has shown dramatic improvement on the ground despite season-ending injuries to three of their top-four running backs. UNC is averaging 178.2 rushing yards per game in its last five weeks after managing just 60.5 yards in their previous four contests.
Junior Ryan Houston is the lone tailback standing, churning out 527 yards and seven touchdowns on a team-high 132 attempts this season. Credit offensive coordinator John Shoop's ability to utilize his speedy wide receivers in the running game to take some pressure off his bull of a running back – Greg Little and Jhay Boyd have combined for 243 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The Eagles' defense was a dominating force in 2008, but new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern has faced the unenviable task of replacing crucial pieces such as reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich (diagnosed in the spring with Ewing's sarcoma), linebacker Brian Toal and high NFL draft picks Ron Brace and B.J. Raji at defensive tackle.
But the next defense under Spaziani's watch that is mediocre will be the first, thanks in part to true freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly (107 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss). The Eagles rank fourth in the ACC in total defense (326.6 ypg) and second in run defense (109.6 ypg).
"They're physical, they're big, they're very strong and they're very sound," UNC offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "You don't see people get really big plays on them. You have to earn everything you get. They will move their front and they love to blitz… These guys are a run-blitzing team."
Boston College's Running Attack vs. North Carolina's Run Defense
While there may have been chaos surrounding other parts of the Boston College program this offseason, one known quantity was the talent level of its offensive line. The Eagles returned four starters, including Preseason All-ACC members Matt Tennant (center) and Anthony Castonzo (left tackle).
"They are very, very physical on the offensive line – maybe one of the best offensive lines that we are certainly going to play against this entire season," Davis said.
With blockers like that, Montel Harris has been afforded the opportunity to shine, and the sophomore running back has done just that, totaling 1,081 yards and 13 touchdowns on 221 carries – good for a 4.9 yards-per-play average.
Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill has also entered the 21st century with his own version of the wildcat offense, or as he calls it, the "Bazooka." Harris utilized that formation to decimate N.C. State on Oct. 17, turning five snaps into 167 yards.
North Carolina counters with the league's top-rushing defense, allowing just 94.1 yards per outing. The Tar Heels have held seven of 10 opponents under 100 yards rushing and their last four opponents have managed just 66.5 rushing yards per game.
"They have very good players and they have a good professional scheme on defense," Spaziani said. "They keep things simple on defense. They just rely on good coaching and good athletes and it works for them."