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Keen vision for Coen

UMass QB had eyes for Eagles

This was the way Liam Coen always pictured it.

He would be the starting quarterback for an undefeated college football team. It would be a Saturday afternoon in autumn before a full house of more than 40,000 fans. He would charge out onto the turf at Alumni Stadium at Boston College, the field of his most fervent dreams.

Tomorrow that all comes true - with a twist. Coen is the quarterback for the 4-0 University of Massachusetts Minutemen, a team ranked No. 2 in the country in the NCAA playoff division (formerly Division 1-AA). He is coming in to take on his once-beloved Eagles, also 4-0, ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll among the big boys of the bowl division (Division 1-A).

Coen and Co. know they will be coming into the contest as a prohibitive underdog. "It's going to take a perfect game," he said.

One of the challenges for Coen will be to avoid getting buried in the avalanche of memories. Playing at BC tugs on his heart in an ancestral way.

Coen's 78-year-old grandfather, Philip Coen, played for the Eagles in the late '40s and early '50s, serving as team captain. Growing up in Rhode Island, Liam went with Philip to several games at Boston College, an atmosphere he found exhilarating.

Liam's father, Tim Coen, a Rhode Island high school football coaching icon, remembers what it was like when Liam would come home from those outings.

"Liam was in awe," Tim recalled. "It was all about what he's about. He knew that was what he wanted to do. He knew right away."

In the years to come, playing for his father at LaSalle Academy in Providence, Liam emerged as a bona fide college prospect, drawing interest from prominent teams at the 1-A and 1-AA levels. There was no question about where he wanted to go.

Tim Coen recalls one evening at Alumni Stadium, at camp in the summer with the lights on, when his sweat-matted son came off the field and told him, "This is me. This is where I belong."

Liam was in the mix with the Eagles deep into the recruiting process. As Tim recalls, it was mid-August before Liam's senior year when the Eagles told him they were not ready to make a decision about any remaining scholarship offers to quarterbacks. On their way to visit Pittsburgh, the Coens learned online that BC had made a verbal offer to Chris Crane (now the junior backup to Matt Ryan). That was, Tim says, a startling and disillusioning family moment for three generations of Coens.

For his part, Liam was able to springboard out of any bitterness and demonstrate the elite quarterback's ability to move forward. His devotion to UMass and his comfort in his role are readily apparent. He does not come across as a young man held back by regret or resentment.

As a true freshman in 2004, he redshirted and watched from the sideline when UMass last played at BC, absorbing a 29-7 defeat.

The next year, he came off the bench for senior Tim Day during Week 2, and the starting job has been his since. Completing a school-best 65 percent of his passes, he has helped lead UMass to an elite status in the playoff division. Last year, the Minutemen set a school record with 13 wins and made it all the way to the national title game before falling to defending champion Appalachian State.

Yes, that Appalachian State, the one that earlier this season knocked off Michigan, then ranked No. 5 in the bowl division, a game some are now calling the greatest upset in college football history. Never before had a 1-AA team defeated a ranked Division 1-A team. It is an achievement the Minutemen will try to replicate tomorrow.

"I kind of wish that App State thing never happened," Coen said, knowing the national wake-up call to top teams made an already huge challenge that much bigger.

In each of the last two years, Coen has led UMass to a near-upset of a Division 1-A squad, a down-to-the-wire 34-27 loss at Army in 2005, and a 21-20 nail-biter at Navy last year. BC, though, represents a quantum leap in challenge.

After running through BC's talent on offense, defense, and special teams, UMass coach Don Brown sighed. "You talk about quality in all three phases - there it is, at the [highest] level," he said. "You're looking at a different bird."

Brown knows that for his quarterback, the day will have some special meaning. "I'm sure he wonders in a quiet moment if he could have played at that level," Brown said. "Of course, we all know he could."

Tomorrow, Coen will run onto a familiar field. His father will be in the stands, as usual. Grandfather Philip is unlikely to make it; Liam's grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, took a bad fall last Sunday and is in a nursing home in Newport with a brace on her neck. Philip is apt to be by her side, but ready to take regular calls from Tim with game updates. It will be the first time in more than 50 years that a Coen will play in a game at Boston College.

The mixture of history and heritage and heartbreak will be right there in the huddle.

"It's something that I'm linked to," said Liam, "and now I have to compete against."

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