CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Boston College Eagles head coach Steve Addazio has used the word “tough” quite a bit over the first four weeks of the season, and he didn’t shy away from doing so again on Saturday.
The Northern Illinois University Huskies proved to be a tough challenge, but the Eagles responded to it and earned a 17-14 win at Alumni Stadium to improve to 3-1 on the season.
“I’d say that’s about as hard of getting a win as I’ve been around in a long time, just really hard,” Addazio said. “You’ve got to give the credit to the kids. They keep battling. They keep hammering away. They never gave up.”
Sophomore running back Jon Hilliman rushed for 119 yards on the day, his fourth consecutive game over the century mark, and redshirt freshman Troy Flutie completed five passes for 92 yards and a first-quarter touchdown to Charlie Callinan.
The teams combined for just 76 yards of total offense in the first quarter. BC moved the chains for the only two first downs, but did not complete a pass as the period finished scoreless.
When all was said and done, the Eagles had held their fourth straight opponent, and their 11th in 17 games, to under 100 rushing yards. NIU managed just 153 total yards, continuing BC’s very strong defense to begin the season.
“I don’t think our unit ever gets nervous,” said sophomore linebacker Connor Strachan, whose nine tackles set a career-high and led the team. “We have faith in the guys around us. We like to get on the field. It’s a chance to make more plays and try to get good field position for the offense and keep it going.”
NIU moved just eight yards on five plays on its first offensive series of the second and the Eagles countered with a ten-play, 68-yard drive to get the scoring going with Flutie in at quarterback.
The Natick, Mass., native handed the ball off to Hilliman five times on the game’s first scoring drive, including a key gain on a short third-down attempt, before Flutie rolled out and found Callinan waiting outside the end zone for an easy 27-yard touchdown.
Flutie’s completion was BC’s first of the game and was the sophomore receiver’s first-career touchdown, but the Huskies came back and tied the game a couple possessions later. Flutie went deep on a play action pass, but cornerback Shawun Lurry read it perfectly and returned the interception 79 yards and into the red zone.
“You’re constantly in your mind saying to yourself — you’ve got a strong defense, play your defense and don’t turn the ball over. People saying you’re playing not to lose,” Addazio said. “You’ve got to be careful as you witnessed. That’s about as safe a play action pass as you can throw. We threw it and it went 80.”
In the Eagles’ first game since sophomore Darius Wade suffered a season-ending knee injury, freshman Jeff Smith also saw time under center and rushed for 73 yards on nine carries despite not completing a pass.
“We just knew we were going to play them both,” Addazio said. “They both did some nice things and they both had some tough moments. You’re talking about guys that have no playing experience. … Those guys went in there and I thought they battled.”
The Huskies needed just three plays to tie the game as junior Joel Bouagnon plowed into the end zone from two yards out before sophomore Christian Hagan nailed the extra point attempt with 2:57 remaining in the half.
Hagan had a chance to give the Huskies a lead just about midway through the third quarter, but his 29-yard field goal was kicked wide right.
After Hilliman and the Eagles were unable to convert on junior John Johnson coming up with the first interception of his collegiate career, the Huskies ran 11 plays on the next series but were unable to break through.
The failed kick was the second by a BC opponent in as many weeks and it seemed to spark the Eagles as their next drive took them 80 yards down field in more than six and a half minutes.
Hilliman was the centerpiece of the offense on the series as he was handed the ball seven times, including two carries for double-digit yardage. After gaining a first down and one more yard, he cut left and broke free from 21 yards away for his second touchdown of the game with 67 seconds left in the third.
“Jon Hilliman ran like Jon Hilliman should be running. I hadn’t seen that in the first three games,” Addazio said. “We challenged all the running backs and they responded. … We could have used that a week ago. He ran like a guy that’s a runner. He’s running people over, he’s breaking tackles, he was physical. I’m proud of the way he played.”
True freshman Colton Lichtenberg kicked the extra point following Hilliman’s touchdown and then booted his first-career field goal, a 25-yarder, through the uprights with 4:40 remaining in the game.
The Eagles did not seal up their third win of the season without making it interesting, however, as junior Aregeros Turner returned Lichtenberg’s ensuing kickoff 86 yards to paydirt to bring the visitors within just three points.
Junior Tyler Rouse could not pick up a first down as the centerpiece on BC’s next series, which finished inside the three-minute mark of the contest, but the Eagle defense came up with some big stops to hold NIU.
Redshirt junior quarterback Drew Hare completed a 26-yard pass to begin NIU’s eventual final drive, but a false start penalty and two incompletions ended its hopes of a miracle comeback.
The win marked BC’s 21st in a row against a Mid-American Conference opponent, and gives it some momentum before heading to the road for the first time this season for a road contest next Saturday afternoon at Duke.