They’re the eye-blink moments in the middle of games that can tilt momentum in irreversible ways.
After hitting the seven-win ceiling for the fourth time in five years, Boston College coach Steve Addazio looked back at the 2017 season and searched for the areas of improvement that could lead to a breakthrough. He pinpointed two key moments from the Eagles’ loss to Iowa in the Pinstripe Bowl that encapsulate the hair-thin margin between wins and losses.
Not even a minute into the game, the Eagles had a first-and-10 situation at the 21-yard line. Quarterback Darius Wade rolled right, looking for wide receiver Charlie Callinan. Playing at Yankee Stadium made for less-than-optimal field conditions, as Callinan found when he slipped on the grass as the ball was coming his way. Iowa defensive back Jake Gervase picked off the pass and gave the Hawkeyes the ball 6 yards from the end zone.
Before it could process that the game had started, BC’s defense was in a red-zone situation.
“All of a sudden, sudden change just like that,” said defensive end Wyatt Ray.
In that instance, the defense was able to hold Iowa to a field goal.
But in the fourth quarter, the Eagles had to put out another fire. After Iowa went three-and-out, Wade was strip-sacked, Iowa recovered at the 45, and the Eagles defense had to put their helmets on again.
Despite reaching a bowl game four times in five years, BC still looks at its loss to Iowa as a missed opportunity.
The Eagles had a chance to win eight games for the first time since 2009. They walked away from a 27-20 loss realizing how small their margin for error was.
“You talk about taking the next step and you talk about how you take the next step. ‘Well, we’ve just got to take the next step,’ ” Addazio said. “OK, how you gonna get there? You try to identify the areas that you feel that you need to improve upon. Duh. And then let the team see that we’re attacking those areas and we have improved on because you feel like, ‘OK, we had to get this done, we got this done,’ and that means we’re on route to being more productive.”
Sudden-change situations have been a priority for the Eagles since spring practice.
The Eagles forced the second-most turnovers in the ACC last season (31), but also had the fifth-most giveaways (20).
The challenge for the coaching staff was to come up with a way to prepare for the moments that inevitably swing games.
“People talk about that, but how do you train that?” Addazio said. “This is something we’re doing to train exactly that so that in our toughest moment when we’re completely fatigued — because as the old saying, ‘Fatigue makes cowards of us all’ — you’re trying to figure out how can I sustain a level of play when I’m completely fatigued.”
The second quarterback Anthony Brown hears the words “sudden change,” his face changes.
A long rehab process after a season-ending knee injury kept him from participating in spring practice, but from the sidelines he had a clear view of how grueling the drills were.
“We’re doing something we call ‘Irene,’ ” Addazio said. “The sirens blow, the horns go off, and we make our team go down into this calisthenic mode of a combination of sit-ups and up-downs and burpees, and all of a sudden I blow the whistle and they have to sprint — wherever they were, they have to drop into this activity.
“Then, boom! They sprint to the line of scrimmage and all of a sudden they’re confronted with third down and 1, winner or loser. And whoever loses, there’s a consequence for that. So we’re attacking that situation.”
It is, in almost a literal sense, a test of will.
“Our thing is I want to attack it under duress, fatigue,” Addazio said. “Wherever they are, they drop. We get them exhausted, blow the whistle, now can we perform when we’re completely gassed and everything’s stacked against you? You’ve got to go win.”
As extreme as it may seem, players have embraced the idea of being prepared for crucial moments.
In Brown’s case, the idea of marching down the field on a 12-play drive, finishing with a touchdown, then having to get back on the field because the defense just forced a turnover is the reason the drill exists.
“You never know on the field when you could be dead tired and now you’re right back on the field and you have to make a play,” he said. “So these are critical situations. Third and 1 to win the game. Fourth and goals to stop or win the game. When the body is fatigued, basically, what can you do? Can you give it that last little bit? Or can you find something?
“I actually like the drill a lot, because it’s very key for us to build that in our bodies because you never know when we’re going to get in a situation like that.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.