DEKALB, Ill. — Maybe Boston College coach Steve Addazio played his cards close to the vest about the Eagles’ quarterback situation for strategic reasons. Or maybe he kept quiet about who would be under center to give a redshirt freshman one last week out of the spotlight.
Whatever the reason, even as preseason camp wound down and the battle between graduate student Darius Wade and freshman Anthony Brown had reached a point when it should’ve been decided, Addazio kept his choice to himself going into Friday’s season opener against Northern Illinois.
Even freshman wideout Kobay White was in the dark up until game day.
“I actually didn’t even know until the game,” he said.
But Brown knew earlier in the week. When Addazio told Brown that he would be just the second freshman to start an opener in BC history, the first person he called was his father.
Anthony Brown Sr. shed a few tears. But knowing he was being thrown into the fire, his son tried to keep it together.
“I’ve been trying to keep my teammates motivated for either me or Darius to play,” he said. “So it just kind of carried over.”
Addazio broke down the decision to performance.
“He graded out the highest in preseason camp,” Addazio said. “We took the body of work. They both did very well. When I tell you they both did well, they both did extremely well. Anthony graded out higher. I had to have something tangible, and that’s how we made our decision. It was off the body of work.”
But handing the keys to the offense over to a dynamic quarterback still in his teens but with a mesmerizing deep ball and speed to get loose out of the pocket made clear just how much the Eagles were rebooting their offense after opening up the playbook in their win in the Quick Lane Bowl last season.
The gamble is whether the rewards outweigh the risk. The Eagles got a taste of both in their 23-20 win over Northern Illinois. Brown completed 26 of 42 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
Brown connected on tough throws downfield but missed open receivers over the middle. He found the end zone twice but tried to squeeze a throw into a tight spot and threw an interception. He made mistakes expected of a young quarterback in his debut, but he played above his age in the most critical moments.
“I thought he navigated it great,” Addazio said. “That was the best part of it. He weathered that, came through it. I mean, it’s a freshman starting on the road in a real competitive-environment game. I thought he came through that and made a bunch of plays. He made some really big throws, and that tells you a lot.”
Brown threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Michael Walker in the second quarter and a 4-yard scoring toss to Ray Marten in the third. But the poise he showed on the game-sealing drive in the fourth quarter allowed the Eagles to walk out of Huskie Stadium with their fourth season-opening win in the last five years.
With the game tied at 20 with 7:17 remaining, Brown marched the Eagles from their 34-yard line to NIU’s 20, setting up a go-ahead, 37-yard field goal by Colton Lichtenberg.
The Huskies threatened to tie it with 21 seconds left, driving 53 yards in 1:52 to set up a field goal attempt from BC’s 22-yard line. But when Christian Hagan’s 39-yard try bounced off the crossbar, the Eagles burst from the sidelines to celebrate.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” Brown said. “I have some great people around me, and it wasn’t just me, it was my teammates that helped me push through this one.”
When Brown stumbled early, throwing a timing pass behind tight end Tommy Sweeney in the first quarter and having it intercepted, and then getting his wires crossed with center Jon Baker in the second quarter, missing the snap and having to fall on the ball for an 18-yard loss, the veterans kept the young quarterback calm.
“The leaders on our offense — Jon Baker and Tom Sweeney — they just told me to keep my eyes on the next play and that’s what I did, and I just kept going,” Brown said.
Ultimately, Brown spread the ball around to eight receivers.
“I believe that all the receivers have a connection to the QBs,” White said. “We’ve been working all summer really hard. The receivers do a good job of staying on top of that. We’ve been working with the QB’s all summer, so he has trust in every single one of our receivers. That’s the best part about it: All of us can make plays.”
Walker led the way with eight catches for 50 yards and a touchdown. But the chemistry between Brown and White, who bonded last year as redshirts and roommates, was clear. White finished with six catches for 76 yards. On BC’s second-quarter scoring drive, Brown threaded the needle through two defenders and White went up to make a 15-yard grab.
“All of it was trust,” Brown said.
In his first game, Brown threw more passes than any quarterback during Addazio’s tenure. BC had only thrown 35 or more passes just once under Addazio, when John Fadule completed 23 of 37 against N.C. State in 2015.
“We’re going to throw the ball more,” Addazio said. “We’re going to throw it.”
Which means putting his faith and fate in a talented freshman.
“They trust me,” Brown said. “And I trust them. I have to keep going. We have to keep going as an offense, and we have to keep getting better and better.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.