CLEMSON -- Hope those ACC championship tickets were refundable.
Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan only looked like a Heisman Trophy contender for one quarter Saturday, but it was the only one in which he really needed to. Spurred by Ryan's three scoring drives in the final frame, the No. 18 Eagles overcame a 10-3 fourth-quarter deficit and spoiled No. 15 Clemson's dreams of an ACC championship, 20-17.
"We've just got to be able to finish it," said Clemson's Cullen Harper, who watched from the sidelines as Mark Buchholz attempted to prolong the game with a 54-yard field goal that fell well short. "It's never enough when you have a guy like Matt Ryan."
The final touchdown was a repeat of Ryan's performance against Virginia Tech three weeks ago, when he pulled a 14-10 win out of his hat after trailing the entire game. After losing a 13-10 lead with 5:28 to go Saturday, Ryan methodically moved the Eagles downfield before facing third-and-seven at Clemson's 43-yard-line.
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He scrambled right, seeming to be looking for a short slant route, before he spied what he wanted. As Rich Gunnell shed his man and streaked toward the end zone, Ryan planted his foot, bombed an arching spiral and watched Gunnell gather it in for an untouched 43-yard score.
Clemson only trailed 20-17 and had 1:46 to go, but Aaron Kelly dropped a perfect pass at the goal line and the Tigers couldn't muster anything substantial afterward. Harper picked up a big first down when he hit Kelly for 12 yards on fourth-and-10, but when Harper was sacked with only five seconds to go, Clemson was forced to turn to Buchholz for a title-saving long-distance attempt.
The kick only looked like it had a chance for about two of the final five seconds. As the ball fluttered into the end zone in front of the crossbar, the Eagles took the field and celebrated, winners of a division title that Clemson thought it had just five minutes before.
"I didn't come up with it," said Kelly, who caught 70 yards worth of throws but had the pass that could have won the title tumble out of his hands. "It's something you dream about ... just didn't come up with it. I should have caught the ball."
Clemson (8-3, 5-3 ACC) seemed to have the game in hand, constantly sacking Ryan on plays he had to make. The Tigers took a 17-13 lead when Harper dove over the goal line with 5:28 to go after BC had just taken its first lead at 13-10 and seemed to have the title in the bag.
But Ryan, who ended up with 315 yards and polished his Heisman resume, didn't give up. He seemed to know that sooner or later, Clemson would fail on its biggest objective -- stay on your man, even when Ryan rolls out.
With only 1:55 to go, it finally happened. Ryan rolled right and saw Crezdon Butler scorched by Gunnell. He lofted a pass that Gunnell had all the time in the world to lock in on, slow up and catch for an easy touchdown.
"We said all week, 'Don't lose your man,'" linebacker Cortney Vincent said. "That's exactly what happened. Only a Heisman winner can make that play."
Clemson came back, Kelly somewhat redeeming himself by catching a tough pass in traffic for a first down with 25 seconds to go. But Tyler Grisham had a pass bounce off his hands and Harper was sacked by Kevin Akins with 0:05 showing, forcing a kick for overtime.
The ball fell short, Boston College celebrated and Clemson's stretch of ACC title-less football reached 16 seasons.
As winners of the ACC Atlantic, Boston College (9-2, 5-2) will play the winner of next week's Virginia-Virginia Tech game in the ACC championship Dec. 1. Clemson will take on archrival South Carolina next week, hoping to win and keep a potential 10-win season alive.
If the Tigers can get over the funk of Saturday first.
"It was a roller-coaster ride," Nick Watkins said. "We've still got goals to accomplish and we've got to come out ready next week.
"But this one hurts. I'm not going to lie."
David Cloninger • 909-4218