In all fairness, of the four bowl trips Boston College has made in the past five years, the one it will make to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday was possibly the most unlikely.
Even for a program that had wiped out most of the memories of a dismal 2015 season and built momentum by earning a bid to the Quick Lane Bowl, the Eagles couldn’t look at their 2017 schedule and not see a minefield.
Between Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, and Virginia Tech, four of the 12 teams on their schedule were in the preseason Top 25, making their margin for error slim before the season ever started. It was a realistic possibility that the Eagles could have been a much improved team over last season and still miss out on a bowl game.
Losing senior center Jon Baker, senior linebacker Connor Strachan, and sophomore linebacker Max Richardson in the first month of the season only made the climb steeper. The Eagles were sitting at 2-4 six weeks into the season, their bowl hopes on life support.
The 5-1 finish that pushed them into the postseason was the result of a perfect storm of sorts. The injuries didn’t subside — they lost quarterback Anthony Brown to a season-ending knee injury and all-American defensive lineman Harold Landry to an ankle injury that’s kept him on the sidelines since October and will likely hold him out of the bowl game but they survived on the “next man up” mentality. At the same time, the emergence of freshman running back A.J. Dillon gave the Eagles offense one of the most dangerous weapons in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With that, a team left for dead midway through the season was able to stun Louisville on the road and put together a string of wins that served as confidence-boosting building blocks.
“We started with some adversity, we lost guys, but through that experience we all started to build that chemistry and that bond,” said Dillon. “And then when you start to win, get bowl eligible and then you win another game . . . you start to get that positive vibe — not only from our team, from our coaches, [but] from the fans. You see it on social media. They’re all excited for the Pinstripe Bowl and that’s exactly what you want.”
The aim now is to take that momentum with them as they make their second trip to the Pinstripe Bowl since 2014. While the sting of their 31-30 loss to Penn State three years ago at Yankee Stadium is still there for many of the upperclassmen, the overwhelming sense is that the Eagles are a much different team.
“We didn’t get the outcome we would have liked,” said defensive lineman Noa Merritt. “But this year we definitely plan on making things change, being a part of that is a great experience.”
Facing an Iowa team just two years removed from a Rose Bowl appearance, it will also be a test.
In Iowa, the Eagles will take on one of the country’s stingiest defenses. Led by cornerback Josh Jackson, who tied for the most interceptions in the nation (seven), the Hawkeyes were 21st in the country in scoring defense. They played the sixth toughest schedule in college football with their signature win coming against No. 3 Ohio State in November. They polished off the year with a 56-14 win over Nebraska to become bowl eligible.
They don’t make a habit of beating themselves. Senior quarterback Nate Stanley’s 25 touchdown passes has him two shy of the school’s single-season record and he threw just six picks all year. The Hawkeye’s plus-4 turnover margin was third in the Big Ten.
“That’s why I respect it so much,” said Eagles coach Steve Addazio. “They’re very fundamentally sound. Everything is fundamental sound and schematic sound. You’re not going to catch them schematically or anything else. They play physical, hard, run to the football on defense, tough, offensive mind-set is they want to establish the run as well.
“This is a good, solid, strong football team. You’ve seen that through the years. You watch the tape of all the games. They’ve played some phenomenal football games. None short of the ones they played against Ohio State at home. It’s a good team, very, very good team.”
When Eagles quarterback Darius Wade looked at the Hawkeyes on film, he said it was a bit like looking in the mirror.
“Iowa, they’re very similar to us,” said Wade. “They’re not the team that has the big five-star names and all the hype around them, but they’re a team that plays hard, they’re technically sound, and they hit you when they come after you — very hard. So it’s just a situation where it’s going to be a very physical game. It just depends on who can outlast who at the end of the day.”
The Hawkeyes are looking for their first bowl victory since 2010. The Eagles are looking for back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since 2006-07.
“It’s going to be mano a mano,” said receiver Charlie Callinan. “We know what they’re doing. They probably have a good idea on what we’re doing. Whoever has the best techniques is going to win. Whoever plays toughest is going to win. Whoever is better prepared. So they’ve got a great team. We respect them. We hold them in high regard. But we’re not going to sit back and play scared or anything. We’re going to go at them pretty good, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Pinstripe Bowl at a glance
■ Who: Boston College (7-5) vs. Iowa (7-5)
■ When: Wednesday, 5:15 p.m.
■ TV: ESPN
■ Of note: BC is 14-11 in bowl games . . . This is BC’s second appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Eagles lost to Penn State in 2014 . . .BC has never faced Iowa in football . . . Freshman quarterback Anthony Brown tossed five touchdowns with one interception to lead the Eagles in wins over Central Michigan, Louisville, Virginia, and Florida State . . . . In his first year at free safety, BC junior Lukas Denis tied for the NCAA lead with seven interceptions. (He is tied with Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson) . . . Denis earned second-team All-ACC honors, along with offensive tackle Chris Lindstrom . . . Iowa is 14-15-1 in bowl games . . . The Hawkeyes stunned Ohio State, 55-24, when the Buckeyes were ranked fifth nationally in early November. Then Iowa dropped consecutive games to Wisconsin and Purdue . . . Offensive guard Sean Welsh earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Iowa running back Akrum Wadley and tight end Noah Fant were named third-team All-Big Ten . . . Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz worked under Patriots coach Bill Belichick as the Cleveland Browns offensive line coach in 1993 and his son, James Ferentz, is an offensive guard on the Patriots’ practice squad.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.