We all have those sporting memories as kids that are etched into our minds. Memories of dramatic comebacks and heartbreaking losses. Games where our heroes came up big, and games where we were left wondering, “Why does this keep happening?”
For some, maybe those memories as a kid come from Michael Jordan sinking the game-winning bucket on your favorite team that sent you crying to your room, or maybe Derek Jeter hit a clutch homer for your Yankees, and you walked into school tall and mighty the next day.
If you grew up during the Tommy Bowden era of Clemson football, like I did, there are a few gut-wrenching moments that still make your stomach turn at the thought of them. These moments impacted my childhood more than any lesson in school or baseball practice that I attended growing up, and these are the moments that make me frustrated when Dabo Swinney takes the foot off the gas in some present-day Clemson football games. Maybe the bitterness still lingers a bit, I admit.
There’s one team in particular that I still hate to this day: those Matt Ryan-led Boston College Eagles. My blood is boiling just thinking about them. Let me set the scene.
September 2006. I couldn’t tell you much about what was going on during that time. I was starting the second grade. I don’t think iPhones were much of a thing, and our TV was still a big thick box that weighed more than me and my brother combined. One of the things I do remember? This was going to be the year — the year Clemson Football finally broke through and became a national powerhouse. The year Tommy would finally get us over the hump. Clemson had not won the ACC in 15 years, but that was coming to an end this season.
I remember the hype around this new freshman running back the Tigers had snagged out of Florida: C.J. Spiller. You may have heard of him. He and sophomore James Davis would go onto be one of the most dynamic backfield combinations of the late 2000s. We had to replace one of the greats at quarterback in Charlie Whitehurst, who gave me a pretty sweet 7th birthday present a year before by beating the ol’ Gamecocks in Columbia. That was no problem though; Will Proctor would lead the way for us. Are you starting to remember the scene a bit? I’m probably already triggering some hard feelings for some of you.
Clemson entered the season ranked 18th in the AP poll. The Tigers were one of the favorites to win the ACC Atlantic alongside Florida State. They breezed through their season opener against Florida Atlantic, setting up a showdown on the road against Boston College, who had some redshirt junior quarterback by the name of Matt Ryan, a guy who was beginning to develop into one of the country’s top quarterbacks. The Eagles had just joined the ACC the year prior, stealing one from the Tigers in Death Valley, 16-13 in overtime. Matt Ryan had played a factor in that game, but that only began a string of games where Ryan would traumatize Clemson fans for a long time.
September 9th, 2006. The Tigers arrived in Chestnut Hill to a sellout crowd of 44,500. I was ready for revenge against this ragtag Boston College team from the Big East trying to make it in the ACC. I watched the game with my family that day, taking in every play as I sat in expectation of another Clemson win. The day started well; Jad Dean hit an early field goal and Will Proctor fired the first of his two touchdown passes to Tyler Grisham, and the Tigers led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter. Matt Ryan and the Eagle offense responded early in the second quarter, however, but Will Proctor found that freshman Spiller for an 82-yard touchdown to put Clemson back up by 10. The Tigers led 17-10 at halftime.
The first moment of the game where Clemson fans really got that nervous pit in their stomachs came on the opening kick of the second half, when BC’s Jeff Smith returned Dean’s kick 96 yards for the score, tying the game at 17. The teams traded possessions, and the game entered the fourth quarter still deadlocked.
With eight minutes to play, the Tigers regained the lead on Davis’ one-yard touchdown run, and all Clemson needed now was a few defensive stops and they could escape with the win. Of course, ol’ Matt Ryan had other plans.
Ryan tied the game with under five minutes to play on a one-yard touchdown run, and the game eventually went into overtime. I was sick. I did not like losing, and I did not like when my favorite football team was on the brink of losing. I was on the edge of my seat during overtime, every play seeming bigger than the last.
After the teams traded field goals, we went into the second overtime. Surely we could finish this thing off in double OT, and for a second, I was kind of right. James Davis scored his second touchdown of the game, and Clemson went back up on top— “Oh it’s tipped, and it’s blocked!” You have got to be kidding me. An Eagle got his hands on the ball, and that elusive PAT fell short of the goal post. Even with the lead, the air seemed to leave my family and the team. Heartbreak lurked around the corner, and eventually revealed itself to us.
BC scored a few plays into their drive, their PAT was good, and Tigers let another one slip through their fingers. I was devastated. I think I cried to my mom. How could this happen? What a gut-wrenching loss. I still remember not eating my dinner that night (very dramatic, but don’t lie, you’ve done it too).
Clemson would upset No. 9 FSU the next week and reel off five straight victories after that, including the epic 31-7 beatdown of Georgia Tech, before the wheels fell off the wagon. The Jad Dean missed field goal against UofSC still burns my childhood memories as well, but that’s another article for another week.
My Matt Ryan hate had officially begun. This man had beaten my favorite team, and I hated anyone who did that. Fast forward to 2007 and we would get another big time matchup between the two teams.
2007 was one of those years where we look back and think about what could have been. In a year where teams like Boston College, Kansas, South Florida and West Virginia all held the No. 2 spot in the AP poll at some point (also all participating in the “Curse of the #2” that season), it’s not hard to imagine what could have been for little ol’ Clemson. I went to my first game that season with my sister and brother-in-law; the 41-23 thumping at home to 14th-ranked Virginia Tech was not a fun one (I can still hear my sister yelling “Put Willy (Korn) in!!!”).
Despite the losses to the Hokies and Georgia Tech, the Tigers sat at 8-2 and ranked 15th in the AP poll come mid-November, with a chance to clinch the ACC Atlantic in their next game versus No. 17 Boston College. It was my birthday weekend, and all I wanted was a Clemson win and a division title (along with NCAA ‘08, which was the only consolation prize on this particular birthday).
The Tigers jumped out front early with a James Davis dive into the end zone to put Clemson up 7-0. The Death Valley crowd, with over 83,000 packed in nicely for the showdown, played a huge role in the dominant first half defensively for the Tigers, who led 7-3 at halftime. Fast forward to the fourth quarter and Clemson’s up 10-3, feeling confident about their chances.
Matt Ryan really began to etch a spot into my bitter heart right about here. The Eagles tied the game on an 11-play, 80-yard drive, capped off by a two-yard score. On the opening play of the ensuing Tiger drive, Cullen Harper was picked off by the BC defense, and the Eagles went on another 11-play drive that led to a go-ahead field goal. The mood in Memorial Stadium drastically switched. If you were watching, you probably thought, “Well, here we go again.” Yep, here we go again indeed.
Not all hope was lost as Harper led Clemson on a 10-play, 56-yard scoring drive, capped off by Harper’s 4-yard scamper that regained the lead for the Tigers with about five and a half minutes to play. Up 17-13, all Clemson needed was a defensive stop, and the Atlantic crown was most likely headed back to Tiger Town for the first time.
Pause: This next part pains me to write just as much as it pains you to read. Thank goodness we have plenty of memories to redirect us away from this.
With 5:28 to play, BC got the ball back at their own 29, down just three. Matt Ryan didn’t play his best game that night, but he was still the best quarterback on the field, and he had one more shot to break Clemson fans’ hearts, and that son of a gun sure took it.
The Eagles moved the sticks twice before they found themselves in a critical 3rd and 7 from the Clemson 43. Only a buck-forty-six remained, and this was practically the game. BC did not want to have to decide between kicking a 50-something-yard field goal or going for it on 4th down, but unfortunately, they didn’t have to.
Ryan took the shotgun snap on third down and was pressured out of the pocket to his right. The redshirt senior looked back to the far side, where he saw a streaking Rich Gunnell running down the sideline. Ryan planted and slung it as far as he could, hitting Gunnell in stride as he walked into the end zone, taking thousands of Clemson fans’ hearts with him. The Eagles made the PAT and went up 20-17 with 1:46 to play.
The Tigers had one more shot, a drive that would haunt Clemson fans like me for a long time. The Tigers began from their own 28 and quickly moved to the BC 45. On 1st and 10, Harper took the shotgun snap and immediately knew he was going deep to Aaron Kelly. Kelly had beat his defender, and Harper aired it out for his top receiver.
And he dropped it at the two-yard-line. The junior dropped it.
The ball went right through his hands at the Clemson 2, and the air in Death Valley officially let out. I screamed. How in the world does our top receiver drop that pass? Little eight-year-old me was distraught. I knew how big of a drop this was. The Atlantic division essentially slipping right through our fingertips with the ball Kelly dropped.
Mark Buchholz would redeem himself a week later in Columbia, but on this night, his leg wasn’t quite strong enough from 54 yards, and the Tigers walked away yet again in bitter defeat. Dreams of an ACC championship and BCS bowl game were gone. I still question the sporting gods on why we couldn’t have had that game; the Red Sox had just won the World Series and the Celtics would win the NBA Finals that next June, plus the Patriots still had Tom Brady. I guess the sporting gods just love them some Boston.
Three straight years of bitter defeat to those Boston College Eagles. Matt Ryan went 3-0 versus Clemson, earning himself a high seat in my childhood burdens of being a Clemson fan before Dabo Swinney. History always rights itself, though. The following year, Swinney would take over for Bowden, and his first win would be against those darn Eagles. Boston College only has one win over the Tigers since then, that ugly 16-10 game in Chestnut Hill in 2010.
This Saturday, Clemson will face the Eagles for the 30th time in series history. The Tigers hold an 18-9-2 advantage over BC, winning the last nine meetings and 11-of-12 since that heartbreaking night in 2007. Sure, Clemson has gotten the best of the Eagles since that night; eight division titles, six ACC championships and two national championships compared to just two division titles, but that does not change the fact that Matt Ryan and the Boston College Eagles tortured Clemson fans, and my childhood, for three years, and ultimately played a role in Tommy Bowden’s inability to get over the hump at Clemson. So, I guess, in a way, you can thank Matt Ryan and BC for helping Clemson get to where they are today.
On second thought, I will never thank Matt Ryan and those Eagles teams. They caused me a lot of heartache as a child, and I hope we smash them this weekend (I’m a little iffy on the -31.0 spread, but as long as we dominate, who cares). I never bought NCAA ‘09 strictly because Matt Ryan was on the cover. I am not ashamed to admit it. I respect Ryan now, obviously, but the child in me will forever hold a grudge against No. 12 from Boston College for breaking my heart so many times. Throw 2010 Cam Newton in that category as well.
Disclaimer: Matt Ryan is a large part of why I chose not to be a Falcons fan. That and, of course, Georgia sports are cursed.