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BSJ Oral History: 10 years ago, Matt Ryan and BC made the college football world sit up and take notice

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(All photos courtesy BCEagles.com)

Ten years ago, Boston College football went on a wild ride. In one of the craziest seasons in recent college football history, the Eagles ascended to the No. 2 spot in the national rankings, becoming truly relevant on a national stage for the first time in more than a decade. What follows is the oral history of the 2007 team — how that team was built, and the lasting legacy it left behind at Chestnut Hill as one of the best teams in the history of the school.

To truly understand the greatness of that year’s team, you had to go all the way back to the 2003 recruiting class. That’s when head coach Tom O’Brien was able to sign not only some elite high school talent, but also find a nice mix of youngsters who would eventually become key parts of the program. Quarterback Matt Ryan — who will return to New England to face the Patriots on Sunday Night Football — led a group that included running back Andre Callender, running back JoLonn Dunbar (who would transition to linebacker in college), running back L.V. Whitworth, linebacker Tyrone Pruitt and safety Jamie Silva. But at the center of it all was Ryan.

Assistant athletics director for football operations Barry Gallup: “Matt wasn’t a national recruit, but I think that was similar to Doug Flutie in that he was a great athlete who just took time to develop. He was a great high school football player, but he was also a good basketball player. I mean, he went to Penn Charter School, which isn’t exactly Everett High. He played a lot of his games on Friday afternoon. The thing was, though, we knew Matt through his uncle, John Loughery. He was the starting quarterback here and beat Stanford in 1980, but he got hurt the following year and Doug started in his place and he never really played again. John was a big factor in recruiting him. The other guy was Mike Mayock. Mike played at Haverford School and he was close with John. He never told Matt to come to BC, but Matt knew that Mike had a great experience, and I think that really helped.”

Ryan showed up on campus in 2003, and was a freshman redshirt. The gangly Pennsylvania native didn’t make much of a first impression on his new teammates.

Callender: “Oh my God, he was skinny. He was all legs.”

Pruitt: “He was this skinny guy who looked like he had never worked out a day in his life.”

Silva: “He was tall, but even now, if you look at him in street clothes, you wouldn’t think too much of him. He was slim. Real slim. But honestly, right from the start, you could see his leadership skills start to take off. It was evident he was going to be a success in life just from the way he carried himself, but I mean, you didn’t know until he stepped on the field. The way he controlled an offense when he first got out there, it was pretty evident that he was going to be special.”

Dunbar: “I remember thinking pretty quickly, ‘Hey, this kid can actually play.’”

Pruitt: “Soon, we all saw glimpses of what he could be, whether it was in the offseason drills or 7-on-7 work. The mental aspect of the game was always there with him. There were some guys on the team who thought he should have been the starter before he was officially named the starter as a sophomore. He looked like a fifth-year senior in his second or third season. It was a testament to him and his work ethic.”

That group of Eagles continued to grow and mature together, going 9-3 in 2004 and 2005 and 10-3 in 2006. Ryan took over as the starter in 2005, and in BC's first year in the ACC, he finished his sophomore season with a 62 percent completion rate, 1,514 passing yards, and eight touchdowns. But that group would lose the man who had brought them all to The Heights. O’Brien ended up leaving at the end of the '06 season in a messy divorce that saw him end up at North Carolina State. The Eagles ended up bringing in Jeff Jagodzinski, a former BC offensive coordinator/offensive line coach who had spent the year before as the offensive coordinator with the Packers. The players welcomed Coach Jags, but losing O’Brien — the coach who had seen them grow — was a tough blow. (Jagodzinski did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.)

Whitworth: “We’ll never know what it would have been like if he stayed. A lot of us were upset that day when he came into the locker room and told us he was leaving. It was a great year, but I really think that if we had Coach O’Brien that season to finish what we had started, we really could have been special.”

Pruitt: “I have nothing but respect for Coach Jags, but in a lot of ways, at that point, he inherited a team that was on cruise control. Tom O’Brien really instilled the grit and toughness in that team. He inherited a lot of players who were already polished when he came in. He was a good coach who knew what he was doing, but that was a Tom O’Brien team.”

Dunbar: “We were all Tom O’Brien guys.”

Despite the success of the previous three seasons — when the Eagles had finished with a combined record of 28-9 — there was now a cloud of uncertainty over the program. How would the players respond to the change in coaching? And how would they respond to the challenge of one of the toughest schedules in school history? “This is one of the most attractive and challenging schedules in our football program's history," Director of Athletics Gene DeFilippo said when the 2007 schedule was announced. "Our team will be facing some very tough competition at home and on the road. With a veteran team returning and a new coaching staff on board, it should be an extremely exciting season for our fans.” But the leadership that first took hold in 2003 was now in full flower.

Ryan: “We had a great group of seniors (that season). I think we had something like 17 fifth-year seniors on that team, so it was a long time spent with a great crew. A lot of veteran leadership on that team.”

Dunbar: “We talked that offseason about being the best team in the ACC, and that year, we went out and we did it. That was the legacy we wanted to leave — we wanted to be remembered as one of the best teams in BC history. We wanted it all that year, and that was the truth. It was something we all lived and spoke about. I give credit to the guys who came before us, but we wanted to set our own legacy that year, and say, ‘This is what BC can do. This is what we can be.’”

Despite the optimism on the roster, the season started on an ignominious note for the unranked Eagles. In the opener against Wake Forest at Alumni Stadium, Ryan’s first pass was returned for a pick-six. However, behind a more wide-open offensive attack favored by Jagodzinski, the Eagles took the lead for good in the third, and ended up rolling to a 38-28 win. The 28 points allowed was one of the low-water marks for that team, at least defensively. They had a simple philosophy.

Silva: “The defense had confidence in the offense, and the offense had confidence in the defense. We knew that if we could hold them to 14 points, that our offense would score. Sometimes it took a little longer than the BC fans would hope for, but it happened pretty much every week.”

The defense fed off the offense and vice versa, as Boston College kept winning. There were wins over N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Army, UMass, and Bowling Green (where BC put up 55 points). All in all, it allowed Boston College to crack the top 10. And while the Eagles weren’t necessarily overwhelming, they were able to take advantage of the fact that many traditional powers were seemingly knocked off every week, including a Stanford upset of No. 2 USC the same night as the win over Bowling Green. Things reached a crescendo when they went into Notre Dame and beat Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish. Along the way, Ryan was transformed from “Matt Ryan” to “Matty Ice” or “Matty Heisman.”

Radio play-by-play man Jon Meterparel: “Someone had called him ‘Matty Ice’ in high school, and we just kind of took it and ran with it. One of his coaches, I think. We just kind of built on it. We alternated between ‘Matty Ice’ and ‘Matty Heisman.’ We thought he had a chance at the Heisman, and that’s why we started using it. But Matty Ice went back to high school.”

Ryan took to Jagodzinski's offense, and starting to really sling the ball that season. He had 10 games where he threw for at least 300 yards, and finished the season with a 59 percent completion rate, 4,507 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. All the hard work the skinny kid had put in over the course of the previous few seasons was starting to pay off. Along the way, he earned comparisons to another former BC quarterback.

Gallup: “Doug and Matt had many of the same qualities in that when they stepped in the huddle -- they exude confidence.”

Callender: “Matt just developed into a great player. He came in as a sophomore as a junior, and you could really see him starting to come on. He would get extra film work, and come in after night classes and get his work in. He had what it took to be truly great. I wasn’t shocked he would go on to do what he did.”

Dunbar: “We knew that if we could control things on defense and keep the game manageable and reachable .. if we could do that, Matt and his crew would do something special.”

In late October, Ryan and the Eagles wrote their masterpiece. BC was set for a showdown with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, in a driving rainstorm. The Eagles were down 10-0 in the fourth quarter, but the skies cleared, and with just over two minutes left, Ryan led the Eagles on a classic drive that culminated with a touchdown pass to Rich Gunnell. Walk-on kicker Steve Aponavicious — who would go on to become a cult hero on campus — successfully executed an onside kick, and Pruitt came up with the recovery. Ryan found Callender for the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left, and BC was still perfect.

Silva: “That was the game. The game. Incredible.”

Meterparel: “I never had a feeling they weren’t going to win that game. That game, the weather was so bad. It was such a sled pull. The weather cleared up near the end of the game, and it was like the BC offense got a reprieve for 20 minutes. It was like, ‘It’s your turn to move the ball.’ It just stopped raining long enough for them to be able to move the ball. There were some unbelievable hits in that one. Ryan took a beating. The Virginia Tech quarterback took a beating. But I never thought they wouldn’t win that game. They had Matt.”

After the Virginia Tech win, the team returned to campus in the middle of the night to find roughly 1,000 students to greet them.

Suddenly, in a city that featured an undefeated Patriots team and a Red Sox team about to win the World Series, there was a buzz about the undefeated Boston College football team, which was now ranked second in the nation with an 8-0 record.

Ryan: “Man, it was a fun time, for sure. It was such a good time to be in Boston — the Red Sox were winning, the Patriots were great, the Celtics were great. It was fun to be in the mix there. Just remember some of those exciting games, and some of the great finishes. Virginia Tech, we had a great finish against them.”

Whitworth: “It was amazing. We had a Heisman candidate at quarterback, we were the No. 2 team in the country, College GameDay was on campus. I mean, Boston is a pro town. It’s not like the south, where college football is king. But we had something special then.”

That excitement was short-lived. BC finally suffered its first loss of the year the following week against Florida State, and followed that up with a shocker of a defeat at the hands of Maryland.

Pruitt: “I don’t want to toot our own horn, but in that Florida State game, me and Jolonn were out with injuries, and we both sat out that game and the Maryland game. You lose two fifth-year linebackers off that defense? That was a big part of why we lost those two games.”

The defeats dropped Boston College to 8-2, while the Eagles fell all the way back to No. 17 in the BCS. But the true character of the team was seen the following week when they went on the road and upset Clemson late for a share of the ACC title.

Gallup: “The Clemson win might have been their best victory of the year. On the road, winning like that after suffering two losses … they could have packed it in for the season but they didn’t.”

Dunbar: “Barry hit it right on the head. Being in that situation and down and out and being able to battle back and come away with that win, it’s a testament to the guys who were on that team and on that coaching staff. No individual wanted to let down their teammates, and I think that started with Tom O’Brien. Those two games were losses, and that sucked, because it took us out of the No. 2 spot. But that toughness we showed bouncing back like that, that was something we got from Tom O’Brien.”

Silva: “We went into Clemson down there, and everyone wrote us off. No one had any confidence in us besides the guys who were wearing the jerseys and the coaching staff and some of the parents. But that was an awesome win. My wife still makes fun of me. There’s a video of me dancing in the locker room after the game where I was doing something crazy. She still makes fun of me for that.”

Whitworth: “The win at Clemson was a huge win. It was bigger than the Virginia Tech win. That was huge for us as a program to go down to Clemson and win a game like that.”

BC split its last two games, but added a win in the Champs Sports Bowl to top off the season with an 11-3 mark.

No Boston College team since then has hit the double-digit mark in wins, and no class since then has seen so much talent reach the NFL. Ryan would be among the first-round draft picks off that roster, a group that would also eventually include defensive lineman B.J. Raji, offensive linemen Gosder Cherilus and Anthony Castonzo. A handful of others spent an extended stretch in the NFL, including Silva, defensive lineman Ron Brace and linebacker Mark Herzlich.

Gallup: “Ultimately, they were like the Doug Flutie team, but a little different. The Flutie teams didn’t have guys who were heavily recruited, but there were some guys on that team who played in the NFL for a long time. They didn’t have a lot of nationally recruited guys, but a lot of them turned out to be pretty good players.”

As for Ryan, he went on to become a first-round pick of the Falcons, and win an NFL MVP in 2016 while leading Atlanta to the Super Bowl.

Silva: "I'm not surprise he ended up having the success that he's had. When I got to Indy, the reporters asked me if I had ever been around a guy who was as smart and had worked as hard as Peyton Manning. I said, 'Yeah, I just came from BC, where I was with Matt Ryan.' I'm so proud of him and what he's accomplished."

Ten years later, Boston College football is having what could generously be described an uneven season. But they’ll be able to wake up the echoes on Oct. 27, when the 2007 team will be recognized in a second-quarter ceremony at Alumni Stadium. Ryan won’t be there, but roughly 20 players from that memorable team will be in attendance. What will they remember most about that memorable season?

Ryan: “Just some great memories.”

Meterparel: “I think their legacy is that they left a lasting imprint on what Boston College football could be. They wouldn’t be like that every year — every program cycles through. But there was a convergence of events there that take place when you have a bunch of two-star athletes evolve into four- and five-star players. BC can be that again. It’s never going to be a factory like Alabama, but that team proved you can win and be consistent if you take time and build your program.”

Silva: “It was a special team with a special group of guys. You don’t get that lucky in life all the time, but that year, we hit on something. It was a blast.”

Pruitt: “We were the best team that BC has ever produced. No disrespect to those Doug Flutie teams, but we were the best.”