NEW YORK — In the weeks of preparation Boston College spent leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, the one thing they knew for certain about the Iowa Hawkeyes was they wouldn’t beat themselves.
They weren’t the type of team that made mistakes. They were the type that forced them.
The Eagles had to avoid feeding a beast that thrived on turnovers if they were going to come away with back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in a decade.
Tied 20-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Eagles faced a third and 8 at midfield and were looking to keep the drive alive for the go-ahead score.
Darius Wade, making just his third start since Anthony Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury, took the snap out of the shotgun, scanned the field, spotted tight end Tommy Sweeney streaking downfield and tried to let loose of a deep ball.
“I was coming up and the safety kind came down and Darius was trying to go over the top,” Sweeney said.
The last thing he saw was Wade drop back.
But Wade never sensed Hawkeyes defensive end Anthony Nelson lurking on his blindside, in hot pursuit not just of the sack but of the strip.
Nelson got both.
Parker Hesse, Nelson’s bookend, hopped on the fumble and in that moment, all the air was sucked out of an Eagles team that had ridden a wave of momentum to its fourth bowl game in the past five seasons.
Two plays later, Iowa was in the end zone. Quarterback Nate Stanley’s 17-yard toss to tight end Nate Wieting put the Hawkeyes at the BC 1, where fullback Drake Kulick punched it in one play later to give Iowa a 27-20 lead.
When Iowa’s junior ballhawk Joshua Jackson picked off a Wade pass on the Eagles’ ensuing drive, the Hawkeyes win was all but sealed.
Iowa forced the Eagles to commit three turnovers, giving the Hawkeyes 21 forced turnovers for the year — the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Jackson’s pick gave him eight for the season, the most in college football.
Despite nearly doubling up the Hawkeyes in total offense (383 to 200), the Eagles left Yankee Stadium with a loss for the second time in three years after a 31-30 overtime loss to Penn State in 2014.
“So all the stats and all the yards, that doesn’t mean anything. When you turn the ball over, you put yourself in harm’s way,” said BC coach Steve Addazio.
One of the traits the Eagles leaned on much of the season as they climbed out of a 2-4 hole to claw their way to bowl eligibility was ball security. Their plus-6 turnover margin was third best in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“It’s uncharacteristic of us,” Sweeney said. “It’s been our weapon the entire season: win the turnover battle.”
Three plays into the game, Wade looked for Charlie Callinan on a play-action pass, but his pass was tipped by Hesse. Iowa free safety Jake Gervase plucked it out of mid-air and returned it 20 yards to the BC 6.
BC’s defense bailed out Wade, holding Iowa to a Miguel Recinos 24-yard field goal.
At kickoff, the 23-degree game temperature was officially announced as “frigid.” Sweeney could tell the cold would be an issue when he tried to dig his cleats into the ground.
“As I was running around for warm-ups with my spikes on, I slipped, I fell,” he said.
At that point, he and several teammates went to the locker room and swapped their spikes for basketball shoes, figuring the traction would be better on a surface that felt more like skating rink than a football field.
The weather did more than force the Eagles to change their footwear. It changed their style of play.
“I knew that would happen in this game,” Addazio said. “This was going to be a game where there was going to be some ups and downs and everybody was going to have to hunker down in the weather and the field conditions. It’s the same for both sides. That play was a play that could happen in those conditions.”
Still, the Eagles managed to take control of the game after the early hiccup.
Wade shook off the interception, completing 6 of 8 passes on BC’s third possession as the Eagles put together a 14-play, 62-yard scoring drive capped by A.J. Dillon’s 4-yard TD run for a 7-3 lead.
But at a critical moment in the second quarter, BC defensive lineman Noa Merritt made a huge play and a huge mistake at the same time when his 12-yard sack of Stanley on second-and-6 was nullified by his post-sack celebration.
It turned what would’ve been a third and 18 from the 24 into a first and 10 from the BC 12.
Two plays later, Stanley hit tight end Noah Fant for an 8-yard TD that gave Iowa a 10-7 lead.
On BC’s next drive, the Eagles answered when Wade let fly of a deep ball fly for Sweeney from the Iowa 39. Hawkeyes defensive back Amani Hooker got a piece of it, but Sweeney grabbed the tipped ball and raced into the end zone to put BC ahead, 14-10.
At the end of the half, Colton Lichtenberg rushed a 36-yard field goal attempt that would’ve extended BC’s lead to 17-10 and pushed it wide right.
“It appeared as though the ball maybe was snapped before the operation was ready to roll,” Addazio said.
They were points the Eagles would sorely miss in the second half, especially with the Hawkeyes — and the slippery surface — neutralizing Dillon.
After rushing for 126 yards in the first half (giving him nine 100-yard games in his rookie season), Dillon finished with just 31 yards the rest of the game for 157 total on 32 carries.