BC's offensive line standing tall

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Boston College sophomore running back Montel Harris changed his jersey from No. 41 to No. 2 before the season to cleverly form the "1-2 punch" with classmate Josh Haden, who wears No. 1 for the Eagles.

The backs have combined to rush for 969 yards on 192 carries with 11 touchdowns through seven games, highlighted by Harris' record-breaking performance Saturday against NC State in which he set BC single-game marks with 264 yards rushing and five touchdowns in a 52-20 thumping at Alumni Stadium.

But as Harris rakes in the accolades this week -- he's been named the Atlantic Coast Conference offensive back of the week, College Football Performance Awards National Performer of the Week and Walter Camp Football Foundation Offensive Player of the Week -- the real secret to the Eagles' offensive success this season should have a gaudier moniker.

The "65-66-74-75-78" punch.

It sounds more like a bingo card, but those are the jersey numbers of BC's five starting offensive linemen -- center Matt Tennant, right tackle Rich Lapham, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Nathan Richman and right guard Thomas Claiborne.

As is often the case at The Heights, the offensive line has quietly emerged as the biggest strength of this season's squad. A group that averages 6-foot-6, 05 pounds is clearly a big reason for the Eagles' 5-2 record heading into Saturday's showdown with nonconference rival Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

"Our offensive line is one of the best in the country," said captain Mike McLaughlin, a senior linebacker. "As a defensive player, you get real comfortable on the sideline watching an offensive ballgame like [last week versus NC State]. The offensive line did what they usually do: maul guys up front."

In a preseason media poll, the Eagles were picked to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Who could argue? BC entered the season with a first-year coach, no experience at quarterback, a defensive line that saw two players drafted in the first two rounds of April's NFL draft and an injury-depleted linebacker corps.

Overlooked was the fact that BC returned four of its five starters on the offensive line, as all but Richman started in 2008. This season, BC's front five has helped the Eagles average 155.3 yards rushing per game.

BC ranks a respectable 49th in the country in sacks allowed (1.57 per game), keeping freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie upright as he gets comfortable leading the offense.

As for Harris, he has eight 100-yard performances in his first two seasons at BC. He heaped all the credit for his record-breaking efforts on the guys up front.

"I really think our offensive line just put their foot down and said, 'All right, it's a battle of the trenches,'" Harris said. "It was kind of a challenge because, all week long, our coaches were saying [NC State] was one of the top run defenses in the ACC. So our goal was to have 200 yards rushing, and our offensive line took it upon themselves to open the holes."

Much of that success came out of the Bazooka formation -- BC's version of the Wildcat, which featured Harris receiving direct snaps. He rushed five times out of the set for 167 yards, including a career-long 70-yard run in the first half.

Eagles offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill incorporated Bazooka during the summer, and the Eagles have worked on it throughout the season with limited success. So what was the difference Saturday?

"I think we simply had a good game plan this time," Tennant said. "We were all firing on the same cylinders and understood what we had to do out there in order to be successful."

The success of BC's offensive line this season should come as no surprise. A school affectionately dubbed "O-Line U" has produced 23 offensive linemen drafted during the past 27 years, including five first-round selections, with Gosder Cherilus (17th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2008) the most recent.

Tennant could be the next BC product in the NFL, as he's projected to be a top center in the 2010 draft. His departure is good news for BC's opponents. The bad news? BC returns its other four starting linemen next season.