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After a lopsided loss to Virginia Tech, it’s time for a reality check with BC football

“I think this team’s buying in on trusting the process,” said BC coach Jeff Hafley.
“I think this team’s buying in on trusting the process,” said BC coach Jeff Hafley.Matt Gentry/Associated Press

Gravity was bound to hit Boston College eventually. A 40-14 loss to Virginia Tech Saturday brought the Eagles back down to earth a bit after they won three of their first four games and made dramatic fourth quarters their calling card.

It was a reminder, in a strange season, that this is still a program in transition under first-year coach Jeff Hafley.

The kinks are nowhere near worked out. But the Eagles' promise feels tangible.

“I think this team’s buying in on trusting the process,” Hafley said. “Yeah, we’re in a results-oriented business, and we want to win and everything. We do.

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"But if you just look at the end result, sometimes win or lose, you’re not looking at the right things. So I think we’ve kind of got them to a point where they trust the process, they trust the coaches.”

So here’s a quick look at some things we’ve seen so far.

The 3-1 start masked some issues, but don’t say Hafley didn’t warn you.

Hafley tried to be up-front about it. Yes, the Eagles found ways to win. Yes, their fourth-quarter comebacks made them fun to watch. Yes, their passing game makes them more exciting. But ...

This team is still very much learning on the fly.

It was a rough loss for Jeff Hafley and the Eagles Saturday.
It was a rough loss for Jeff Hafley and the Eagles Saturday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Early in the season, the Eagles were kicking themselves for leaving big plays on the field. Against Virginia Tech, they paid for going big and turning the ball over. They’re banking on learning when to make those reads and take those shots. That comes with time and reps.

Hafley can live with the mistakes — even ones that might cost them a game — as part of the growing process.

“I don’t want guys walking around here with their heads down and sulking and thinking they have to be quiet,” Hafley said. “Be who you are; don’t let circumstance dictate your behavior.”

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The sky’s the limit for the offense — as long as it doesn’t sabotage itself.

Try wrapping your head around this: BC has the second-best passing offense in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Eagles are throwing for 305.2 yards per game. Clemson leads the conference with 348.0. Clemson’s quarterback is a virtual lock to be the No. 1 draft pick whenever the NFL draft actually happens. BC’s quarterback is a transfer from Notre Dame who hadn’t started since high school.

A couple weeks ago, when Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi observed that the Eagles "just kind of run the ball just to say they ran it,” he couldn’t have been more spot-on.

The Eagles have weapons in the passing game that were lying mostly dormant under former coach Steve Addazio. Now they’re exploring them. And they’re not just leaning on tight end Hunter Long (35 catches, 416 yards, 3 touchdowns) and receiver Zay Flowers (28 catches, 462 yards, 4 touchdowns).

They’ve gradually incorporated Jaelen Gill (6 catches, 104 yards, 1 touchdown vs. Virginia Tech) and Jehlani Galloway (4 catches, 68 yards vs. Tech).

Hunter Long has become one of BC's top targets in the passing game.
Hunter Long has become one of BC's top targets in the passing game.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Hafley used the word “unstoppable” to describe the BC offense against the Hokies, which might sound like a stretch. But when you consider the five turnovers the Eagles committed, it’s a sign of how close they are and also how far.

Establishing the run on offense might not be as big a concern as stopping the run on defense.

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As strange as it may seem for BC to be at the bottom of the conference in rushing yards per game (66.2), Hafley doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it.

“I told those backs today, I got their back,” he said Sunday. “They’re going to hold the ball and they’re going to get better and I’m not going to all of a sudden get in panic mode.”

What’s becoming alarming is the number of rushing yards they’re giving up. The Eagles are 10th in the ACC in rushing defense, getting gashed for 177.2 yards per game.

There was some foreshadowing in the season opener against Duke when Deon Jackson averaged nearly 5 yards per carry. Two games later, North Carolina’s Michael Carter ran for 121 yards on 16 carries. The BC defense had arguably its best performance of the season against Pitt, holding the best rushing team in the conference to just 98 yards on the ground.

Then Virginia Tech mashed out 350 rushing yards last week. A good chunk came after missed tackles — whether it was an opportunity at a sack or a broken tackle in the gaps — that turned into bigger gains.

Virginia Tech's Raheem Blackshear scores a fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday against Boston College.
Virginia Tech's Raheem Blackshear scores a fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday against Boston College.Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times/Associated Press

“We were there,” Hafley said. “The gaps were taken care of, we had leverage, and all of a sudden — boom, boom — bounced out, miss tackle, miss tackle, 25-, 30-yard gain. We haven’t played like that this year.”

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Here’s an absolutely unscientific look at how Hafley’s first five games compared with some of his predecessors'.

It’s almost impossible to glean much from five games in a COVID season, but here we are. Hafley’s arrival reenergized the program before the Eagles so much as stepped on the practice field. Winning three of his first four games didn’t hurt.

But there also was buzz when Addazio got the Eagles off to a 3-2 start in his first year in 2013 with wins against Villanova, Wake Forest, and Army and losses to USC and Florida State. BC went to the Advocare V100 Bowl after a two-year bowl drought.

Frank Spaziani inherited a team in 2009 that had gone to the ACC championship the year before. He was 4-1 through the first five games of his first full year as head coach. He made two bowl appearances before bottoming out at 2-10 in 2012.

Jeff Jagodzinski had a run to remember (for reasons good and messy). The Eagles got off to an 8-0 start with him on the sideline in 2007.

Tom O’Brien was 2-3 through his first five games. The last loss was an ugly 42-14 beating at the hands of Georgia Tech. He ended up doing just fine, leading the Eagles to eight straight bowl appearances.


Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.