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Three and Out: Boston College stuns USC in emotional 37-31 upset win

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Compare the caliber of the athletes, the tradition of the programs and the former recruiting rankings of the players. On paper, Boston College and USC lined up as a mismatch for the ages. But in college football, perhaps more than in any other sport, the power of emotion can negate even the most glaring discrepancies in strength, speed and athleticism.

As Boston College ran away -- quite literally -- with a 37-31 win over No. 9 USC on Saturday night, it offered a compelling reminder why college football can be so beautifully volatile. Here are three quick thoughts from the game:

1.Boston College won in emotional fashion

The emotion lathered up for the Eagles all night. It began with the school’s red bandana theme in honor of former lacrosse player Welles Crowther, who passed away on Sept. 11, 2001. It continued with a halftime message from the family of former baseball star Pete Frates, who thanked the Boston College community for making the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a national sensation. And it ended with a field storming and a historic victory, as the Eagles knocked off a top-10 opponent for the first time since ‘04.

The Trojans blew out the Eagles 35-7 last September, and oddsmakers had USC listed as nearly a three-touchdown favorite. But Boston College rode the emotion of the home crowd, the inspiration of a fallen hero and a relentless rushing game to victory. It authored a defining win for second-year coach Steve Addazio, whose young team grew up before his eyes.

The lasting image of the game came with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Eagles quarterback Tyler Murphy glided through USC’s defense for a 66-yard score. Murphy kept the ball on a zone read and bolted untouched down the left sideline. That play neatly summarized a night of rushing dominance for Boston College and ball-fake wizardry for Murphy. 

The Eagles finished the game with 452 rushing yards, gashing the Trojans for an average of 8.4 yards per carry. Murphy carried 13 times for 191 yards, sophomore Myles Willis carried nine times for 89 and true freshman Jon Hilliman had 19 rushing attempts for 89 yards with two touchdowns.

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2. This loss brings USC’s on-field problems to the forefront

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The story of the game goes beyond USC losing or Boston College winning. The Trojans brought just 55 healthy recruited scholarship players to Alumni Stadium, as the program still feels lingering effects of the NCAA-issued sanctions from the end of Pete Carroll’s tenure. With this loss, USC is now essentially eliminated from College Football Playoff contention. In fact, the team is lucky not to be 1-2 after Stanford self-destructed in the Trojans’ 13-10 win in Palo Alto last week.

The biggest and most immediate concern for USC is its offensive line, a patchwork collection of everyone from freshmen to walk-ons. The Eagles demolished the Trojans up front, generating five sacks and clogging potential holes for tailback Javorius Allen. USC carried 29 times for 20 yards; Pittsburgh rolled through Boston College for 303 rushing yards last week.  

With all the drama stemming from the Josh Shaw situation and athletic director Pat Haden’s argument with officials, very little of USC’s on-field play has been analyzed. To put it bluntly, the program needs to focus on the X’s and O’s.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler looks pedestrian. The team’s running backs appear ordinary. And the Trojans’ play calling on Saturday night failed to capitalize on the roster’s strength at receiver. Boston College’s glaring defensive weakness is its secondary. USC failed to get to the ball to its skill-position players in space.

The Trojans’ offense was so ineffective that it looked foolish playing up-tempo, as it routinely gave the ball back to Boston College and quickly wore down its defense. (An up-tempo scheme may not be the smartest strategy for a team down 20 scholarship players). USC had five drives that went three-and-out, and three that totaled four plays and resulted in a punt.

3. Boston College found its offensive identity without Andre Williams

The Eagles were a power-running team last year with Heisman Trophy finalist Williams leading the way. (Williams ran for 2,177 yards in 2013, but was invisible against USC with 38 yards on 17 carries.) Yet behind graduate transfer Murphy, who is more dangerous as a runner than as a passer, Boston College has diversified its offense to feature more of a spread-running game. It still dabbles with jumbo sets, but it found more success with Murphy improvising and bouncing runs to the outside.

Offensive coordinator Ryan Day called a deft game on Saturday night, with no play more clever than Sherman Alston’s 54-yard end around that gave Boston College a 20-17 lead in the second quarter. Calling the play an end around almost feels like an insult, as it was more misdirection with symphonic execution. With the entire Eagles’ offense rolling right, Alston darted the opposite way and handled a quick pitch from Murphy. The speedy true freshman burst through the Trojans’ defense (which was without All-America linebacker Hayes Pullard in the first half) and scored the touchdown that gave Boston College the lead for good.

Day said during summer practice that the offense needed to expand this year to take advantage of the field horizontally. In upsetting USC, it did that very well.