Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Matt Ryan
The most of America, Matt Ryan is better known as “Matty Ice”, the engineer of the Atlanta Falcons’ high-powered offense, the possible MVP, whose preparing for a January that he hopes will vanquish the doubts that exist about his ability as a big-game quarterback. But before Matt Ryan was in Atlanta, he belonged to Boston College. So in this month of January when we first focus on college football and the BCS National Championship, and then move to the NFL playoffs, BST&N’s Vintage Athlete of the Month is Matt Ryan, with the focus on his college years.
Ryan was born, grew up, and played high school football in eastern Pennsylvania, but he had BC blood in his family—his uncle, John Loughery, had been a quarterback for the Eagles from 1979-82. Uncle John started in 1980, but was eventually replaced by an up-and-comer named Doug Flutie. Little did Loughery know, that he would one day have a nephew that would not only start in Chestnut Hill, but break a lot of Flutie’s records along the way.
After an acclaimed high school career in three spots—Ryan was a successful small forward in basketball, along with playing shortstop and pitcher on the baseball diamond—he took budding football career north. Ryan got occasional playing time in 2004 as a freshman and again through the first part of 2005 as head coach Tom O’Brien went back and forth between Ryan and Quinton Peters.\
Ryan got the job for good in the final games of the’05 season and Boston College promptly beat N.C. State and Maryland, then won a bowl game against Boise State—one year before Boise would become a household name, using much the same cast to go undefeated and win the Fiesta Bowl. In those three games, Ryan’s offense scored a combined 88 points and the young quarterback was made an increasingly bigger part of the game plan each week.
2006 was a breakout year for Ryan and it started right away on September 9. Playing Clemson, he rallied BC from deficits of 10-0, 17-7, 24-17 and finally 33-27, leading a game-winning drive and producing a 34-33 win. In a sign of things to come, Ryan effectively spread the ball around to his receivers, never locking in on one particular target.
An even bigger win came on Thursday night for a national ESPN audience. Boston College manhandled the respected Virginia Tech program with a 22-3 win. The cornerstone of Virginia Tech’s success over the last two decades has been defense, and they did keep Ryan’s completion percentage low, at 16-for-29. But the quarterback was able to throw the ball downfield into coverage and live to tell about it, producing 274 yards in the air with no interceptions.
Boston College followed up this win, with a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 24-19 win on the road at Florida State. Kevin Challenger had emerged as favorite target, but Ryan still made sure multiple receivers stayed involved in the passing game. He put up another sparkling game against 21st-ranked Maryland in a 38-16 blowout and the Eagles capped the year with another bowl win, this time over Navy. The Midshipmen were able to force Ryan into some uncharacteristic mistakes—two interceptions. But when the money was on the table and BC trailed 24-16 in the fourth quarter, Ryan led the way and the Eagles won 25-25 on a last-play field goal.
Ryan was named the ACC’s first-team All-Conference quarterback for 2006 and was ready for a big 2007. They would have to do it with a new coach. Tom O’Brien had left for N.C. State, an inter-conference move that surprised a lot of people and Jeff Jagodzinski was the new man at the helm. The ACC didn’t do the Eagles any favors, giving them three conference games in the first three weeks of September. The opponents were Wake Forest & Georgia Tech, the two teams who’d met in the previous year’s conference championship game, with those games sandwiched around a visit to O’Brien and N.C. State, one that would surely have high emotions on both sides.
It was a time when you need a senior quarterback and leader to step up and that’s what Ryan did. The start against Wake was less than ideal—a pick-6 back the other way on the first series of the season. But five touchdowns and over 400 yards quickly followed and Boston College got a 38-28 win over a program that was then producing the best passing offenses in the ACC.
Ryan struggled against his old head coach, completing just 15-of-34 passes and only producing 142 yards, but his teammates picked him up this time, and BC rolled past N.C. State 37-17. Ryan was back in rhythm for Georgia Tech, racking up another 400-yard game, making no mistakes and leading the way to a 24-10 win. The Eagles were 3-0 and up to #14 in the nation.
The good times would get even better, with a win over a fading Notre Dame team, and then yet another Thursday night upset of Virginia Tech. In this one, the Hokie defense had Ryan’s offense stymied for over 55 minutes. But the Eagles’ own defense kept them alive and the score was only 10-0. In the final three minutes, Ryan threw two touchdown passes, the last with 11 seconds left and BC shocked the country with a 14-10 win.
An added bonus for this win—it came on October 25, giving Boston sports lore something positive on this date, to go along with Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The 2007 Boston College win came at a time when the Red Sox’ run to a World Series title was dominating the city’s headlines and attention—to say nothing of an undefeated NFL team– but the local college football team was now up to #2 in the polls and Ryan was being talked about as a Heisman candidate.
2007 was a crazy year in college football and BC was not immune from what would become known as “The Curse Of #2”, where teams kept rising and falling. A loss to Florida State ended the national title and Heisman talk, but a significant prize was still out there—winning the ACC’s Atlantic Division and getting to the conference championship game in Jacksonville.
Ryan led a comeback win over Clemson, throwing a 43-yard-touchdown pass to Rich Gunnell with 1:46 left to secure a 20-17 triumph and then the Eagles beat Miami, with Ryan breaking a 14-14 fourth quarter tie with a touchdown pass and another scoring drive. Boston College had done it—they were going to the ACC Championship Game.
It’s here that I would like to briefly get sidetracked to pay tribute to a good friend’s father—a BC alum who retired to Jacksonville, which was hosting the BC-Virginia Tech conference championship game in 2007. He passed away a year and a half prior to this game, but I have no doubt he secured a good seat in the Eternal Luxury Suite to watch an Orange Bowl bid get settled and give BC an even bigger part in what was a tremendous year for Boston sports (in addition to the Red Sox championship and the Pats’ undefeated season, the Celtics had acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and by early December it was apparent the city’s NBA franchise had new life).
Boston College started strong and led 16-7, but the experienced Hokies came back and in the end it’s just very tough to beat a good team twice in a year—not to mention three straight times over the span of two years and while Ryan threw for 305 yards, Tech got a couple interceptions and the game ended 30-16.
Ryan still took the Eagles on to a third straight bowl victory, this one over Michigan State, where he tossed three touchdown passes and BC got a 24-21 win.
The postseason awards flowed in for Ryan. He won the Johnny Unitas Award, given to the nation’s best quarterback. In winning the award he beat out the man who won the Heisman that same year and eventually get a modest amount of media attention himself—perhaps you’ve heard of Tim Tebow?
NFL scouts loved Ryan as well, and he scored well in workouts and the exams administered during the pre-draft examinations. The Atlanta Falcons chose him with the third overall pick. Ryan paid immediate dividends, winning the starting job as a rookie, and making the playoffs four of his first five seasons, including this year. While the failure to win a playoff game has put him and his team under heavy pressure this month, we should note that the three quarterbacks Ryan has lost to are named Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning—not exactly a collection of stiffs.
What Atlanta reaps the benefit of today, was nurtured in Boston. From his family heritage to his brilliant three-year run in Chestnut Hill, Matt Ryan is Boston College football and we wish him luck in January. It’s easy to be gracious this month…since the Super Bowl and his potential meeting with the Patriots isn’t until February.