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BC 26, Duke 6

Boston College caps long, unusual journey with impressive road win over Duke

Running back David Bailey (26) celebrates with teammates after rushing for a first-quarter touchdown in Saturday's 26-6 victory at Duke.
Running back David Bailey (26) celebrates with teammates after rushing for a first-quarter touchdown in Saturday's 26-6 victory at Duke.Nell Redmond/Associated Press

DURHAM, N.C. — There was already so much weight on Boston College’s first football game of the season. In the culmination of a year suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic and slowly restarted with the hope, but no true certainty that college sports could sustain itself, Eagles first-year coach Jeff Hafley didn’t feel any need to put any more on his players.

The Eagles had been through three months of life in their own version of a bubble just to get to the point that they could travel to Duke for Saturday’s 26-6 victory. Their schedule was one of the quirkiest they had seen in decades. They hadn’t started a season so late since 1981, when they also opened on Sept. 19 against Texas A&M. They hadn’t faced Duke since the infamous 9-7 debacle in 2015.

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Hafley figured the last thing his team needed was more to think about.

“Truthfully, I didn’t have many expectations other than playing hard, playing for each other, and enjoying the moment today,” Hafley said. “That’s all I talked about. I didn’t talk about Duke much all week. I didn’t talk about playing a great game. I truthfully told the team today, ‘You can’t fail.’ Everything you’ve just been through, go play. There’s no failing today. Just have fun and go let it rip.”

Still, there was no way around the oddity of it all. The sounds and scents that define a college game day were missing. There were empty parking lots where tailgates would normally be.

The seats at Wallace Wade Stadium that would have normally been filled with Duke fans were empty, save for cardboard cutouts in the first few rows. Even the sidelines felt sparse, with Boston College carrying fewer players in its traveling party and more space between them for social distancing.

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This was college football in a COVID-19 world, but it was college football nonetheless.

“It’s different,” said tight end Hunter Long. "It’s all new to us. It’s new to everybody, but at the end of the day we’re just playing football. It’s what we do all the time.

"It’s been such a long road for us as a team, but credit to all the guys on the team. We held in there, stuck together, and to be able to play today was awesome.

Once the initial awkwardness set in, BC took its first steps into a surreal college football landscape with their win over the Blue Devils.

Jeff Hafley, talking to defensive back Josh DeBerry in the second half, earned a victory in his debut as Boston College head coach.
Jeff Hafley, talking to defensive back Josh DeBerry in the second half, earned a victory in his debut as Boston College head coach.Nell Redmond/Associated Press

Hafley couldn’t yet process the significance of earning his first win as a head coach. The Eagles piled up 440 yards of total offense, effective on the ground (140 yards) and through the air (300). Transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who waited patiently through a frustrating process to have his eligibility approved by the NCAA, shined in his first game under center, completing 17 of 23 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Zay Flowers caught five passes for 162 yards and a score. Long caught seven more for 93 yards and a TD.

The highlights matter, but not more than the big picture.

“We’ve been through so much together,” Long said. “We’ve only been together for nine months, but in those nine months, we’ve been through stuff that no team’s ever had to deal with before.”

Across the ACC, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech had games postponed for COVID-related reasons. The fact that BC was able to follow protocols, return just one positive test since June, and make its game happen underscored the effort it took just to take the field.

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Boston College, left, and Duke lineup for the opening kickoff of the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, in Durham, N.C. (Nell Redmond/Pool Photo via AP)
Boston College, left, and Duke lineup for the opening kickoff of the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, in Durham, N.C. (Nell Redmond/Pool Photo via AP)Nell Redmond/Associated Press

“You keep it about the team and you keep it about each other,” Hafley said. "The same way we’ve had 2,500 tests and we haven’t had a positive, you look out for one another and you take care of each other and you bring juice with each other. This game’s about anybody else. It’s really not, it’s not even about me. It’s about the team.

“It was about them and they went out and played. I don’t think our guys noticed [the atmosphere]. I think they had a blast on the sideline, they had a ton of energy, they never ever looked down. It’s who this team is. We’re going to have our ups and downs but it won’t matter as long as the process is right and we stick together and we do things the right way.”

The Eagles opened up in familiar fashion, chewing up yards on the ground with a 10-play, 81-yard opening drive fueled by five carries by David Bailey for 21 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown that put BC up 7-0 early.

But after going into the half up 7-6, they dialed it up in the second half. Jurkovec threw two touchdowns in the third quarter — a 61-yard bomb to Flowers and a 9-yard score to Long — that showed the offense’s potential firepower.

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But Hafley just wanted his team to stay in the moment. He didn’t give much thought to what the past six months have meant.

“Maybe tonight on the plane or when I get home,” he said.

But he did catch himself getting emotional after the game. He said he wanted to give each player a game ball.

“When they look back on that date, they’re going to remember one of the hardest points of their lives that they had to battle through and sacrifice,” Hafley said. “And no one will ever take this day away from them. No one will ever take away how hard they worked to get to this point. And it’s so much bigger than coming here and beating Duke. This day will forever be about this team and what they did to get to this point.”

Boston College defensive backs Mike Palmer (18) and Deon Jones force a fumble by Duke quarterback Chase Brice.
Boston College defensive backs Mike Palmer (18) and Deon Jones force a fumble by Duke quarterback Chase Brice.Nell Redmond/Associated Press

Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.