Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan put his million-dollar right arm on display and came up with a 43-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes that was similar to the one he threw for a game-winning play against Virginia Tech three weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, Clemson quarterback and 2008 Heisman Trophy candidate Cullen Harper had an equally impressive throw in the final minute, but his fell incomplete as star wide receiver Aaron Kelly dropped it near the goal line.
That was the difference as the drop ultimately forced the No. 15 Tigers to try, and miss, a game-tying 55-yard field goal at the buzzer as No. 18 Boston College took the 20-17 victory Saturday night at an overflowing Memorial Stadium.
Clemson will have to wait at least one more year before capturing its first ACC championship since 1991.
“The coaches called my number late in the game to go and try and make a big play and I didn’t come up with it,” said Kelly, who was the first Clemson player out of the locker room to face the hoard of media. “It’s something that you dream about and something that you really want and it just didn’t work out. …
“The coaches said to just throw it deep to Aaron and that was the play. I ran by the corner and laid out and just didn’t come up with it. I should have caught the ball. I expect to catch everything.”
When Harper let that pass go with about a minute left on the clock and the Tigers trailing by three, he thought it was a touchdown. Everyone in the stadium thought it was a touchdown.
“I felt like Aaron had a good chance to make that play and nine times out of 10, he will make that play,” Harper said.
After the drop, Harper did connect with Kelly for 12 yards on fourth-and-10 to move the ball to the Eagles 33 with 23 seconds left. After a three-yard pass and an incomplete, Clemson was faced with a third-and-7 at the 30 with 11 seconds left on the clock.
The question was should the Tigers run the ball in the middle of the field and call timeout to give placekicker Mark Buchholz a straight-ahead field goal from roughly 47 yards, or should they risk it and try to pick up about another 10 yards or so to get the game-tying field goal attempt closer?
They chose neither as the Tigers surprised everyone by taking a shot for a touchdown and ending the game right there. But there was one major problem: Harper never got the pass off.
Harper dropped back, pumped-faked and just as he was getting ready to throw it deep, he was hit from behind by blitzing cornerback Roderick Rollins, who sacked him for a seven-yard loss.
“It was a hitch-and-go type thing, but I’m not sure where the guy came from,” Harper said. “I’d not like to take a sack there. That wasn’t good on my part. Once again, they made plays.”
Now Clemson (8-3, 5-3 ACC) was forced to try a 55-yard field goal with only five ticks left on the game clock.
Buchholz has a strong leg, and his kick was right down the middle, but it fell a few yards short and the Eagles (9-2, 5-2 ACC) punched their ticket to Jacksonville, Fla., for the ACC Championship, where they will face either Virginia or Virginia Tech.
“The best part of Boston College’s football team is its team,” Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. “That’s the way we played today. We had a lot of adversity this past week. Our linebackers weren’t playing. We lost our kick returner to a concussion. We lost our All-American starting corner and our guys just banded together to win.”
Of course, it helps when there’s a player like Ryan roaming on your sideline.
Just a minute earlier on third-and-7 at the Clemson 43, Ryan took the snap and was flushed to his right due to pressure from the Tigers front line. As he rolled to his right, he stopped and spotted receiver Rich Gunnell 20 yards behind the defense, but he was all the way to the left side of the field.
Ryan stopped, planted his foot and threw a perfect pass under immense pressure across the field and his body to the waiting Gunnell, who strolled into the end zone.
Very few in the college ranks have that type of arm strength to make that pass.
Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden had nothing but compliments for Ryan.
“I told (my team) don’t hang your heads,” he said. “We played hard and they played hard. They had maybe the best quarterback in the country make one more play than we did. …
“If you give him one down and take even one play off, he can hurt you. You can sack him, but he’s going to bounce back. He’s tall and scrambles. We were able to get good pressure, though. He is a great player and we were beaten by the best quarterback in the nation.”