Clemson pulls away from undermanned Boston College

CHESTNUT HILL — There were moments when Boston College had its upset hopes raised during Saturday night's showdown with Clemson at Alumni Stadium.

There was Michael Walker's punt return for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a lead in the first quarter. There was the muffed punt by Clemson that gave BC the ball on the Tigers' side of the field late in the second quarter. There was the defensive stop moments later that left BC within striking distance at halftime.

But that is all they were — moments. Over the long haul, an Eagles team that lost starting quarterback Anthony Brown to injury on the team's first possession, and whose star running back, AJ Dillon, is still nowhere near full health from an ankle injury, never truly stood a chance.

Although the BC defense fought admirably, and backup quarterback EJ Perry had — again — moments in relief of Brown, the second-ranked Tigers showed why they are every bit a favorite to return to the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive season with a 27-7 victory.

With the win, Clemson improves to 10-0 and 7-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, good enough to clinch the Atlantic Division crown, while the Eagles fall to 7-3 and 4-2 in the conference.

"I thought our kids battled hard tonight," BC coach Steve Addazio said. "I thought the defense battled hard. I thought we were out of sync on offense. I thought EJ Perry showed a lot of guts. The stage wasn't too big for him."

However, that stage, which included a visit from ESPN's College GameDay and a primetime 8 p.m. start, has become old hat for a program like Clemson. The Eagles, while enjoying one of their best seasons in the last decade, have a ways to go before they can say that.

Still, those brief flickers of positivity did show for the Eagles in front of a sold-out crowd of 44,500.

Even though Clemson jumped out to a 3-0 lead on its opening possession and Brown left the game on BC's first series, the Eagles found the end zone first. On a Clemson punt, the ball ricocheted off a Tigers gunner, allowing Walker to corral the ball without consequence if he mishandled it himself.

The senior then found room to the right, and sprinted untouched to the end zone from 74 yards out. The home crowd erupted in a way that is rare around these parts, and the Eagles held a 7-3 lead after Colton Lichtenberg's point-after kick.

"Pretty special feeling finally having that touchdown, especially in a game like this," Walker said of his first career punt return for a score.

It did not take long for Clemson to wrest the lead back for good. The BC defense forced a fourth and goal from the Eagles 2-yard line, where the Tigers lined up in a heavy package that features two defensive linemen in the backfield. But instead of handing it off to one of the big men, one of which included Springfield native Christian Wilkins, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence lofted a pop pass to tight end Milan Richard for the score.

The Tigers added a 23-yard Greg Huegel field goal in the second quarter, but the Eagles gave themselves a chance to stay within striking distance. Clemson drove into BC territory late in the second quarter, but an Isaiah McDuffie sack helped force a desperation heave as time ran out to keep it a 13-7 game going into the break.

The BC offense could not find its rhythm, though, as Perry was under constant pressure from a Clemson front four that some forecast could produce four first-round NFL draft picks in 2019. The Tigers loaded up eight- and nine-man boxes, daring Perry to beat them with his arm.

In the end, Clemson swallowed up Dillon for just 39 yards on 16 carries, while Perry completed 12-of-21 passes for 98 yards.

Perry's teammates had nothing but high praise for the Andover native's ability to come in on short notice against one of the most fearsome defenses in the nation.

"EJ's a stud," said defensive end Zach Allen, who had another terrific game off the edge. "We go against him in camp, and he was taking reps with the ones. You're not going to find a better dual-threat quarterback in the ACC, in my opinion. . . . We have all the faith in him."

And while Lawrence is not known as a dual threat, he took what was given to him when the Eagles bit on the running backs on zone read plays. One such instance led to Lawrence waltzing in from 6 yards out with 11:56 to play in the third quarter.

That 20-7 lead was all Clemson needed, but the Tigers really added the exclamation point on Amari Rodgers' 58-yard punt return for a score early in the fourth quarter.

Going forward, Addazio did not have any information on Brown's status, but it certainly seems like Perry will be the starter next weekend in Tallahassee when the Eagles visit Florida State.

Toward the end of the press conference, Addazio had to be reminded of when Brown sustained his injury.

"It was the first drive?" he asked.

He added, in a bout of beleaguered disbelief, "God almighty. Yeah. Well, I lost track of that right there. I knew it was in the first quarter, but the first drive."

It certainly put a pall over all the pomp and circumstance that came with GameDay's arrival, but the Eagles know they've taken steps to where they want to go as a program. They're just not there yet.

"Definitely a really cool experience. Definitely something that we've all worked for," Walker said. "We've all worked to get here. We've been talking about this for years now, trying to play for a championship. Tonight was the night that we had a chance to play for a championship."

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