October 9, 2007
CLEMSON Three days after watching his team melt down on special teams in a 13-3 loss at Georgia Tech, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden was at his flippant and strident best er, worst.
Throughout his weekly press conference, Bowden was peppered with questions about special teams. Against the Yellow Jackets, the list of errors was long four missed field goals, a blocked punt that led to a touchdown, a fumbled punt return that led to a field goal, and a roughing-the-punter penalty.
Virginia Tech was rolling into Death Valley four days later, the same Virginia Tech program that has made an institution of special teams excellence under long-time coach Frank Beamer. So you might say that special teams was something of a timely topic as Clemson approached a game that was vital to its ACC title hopes, not to mention its shaky emotional state.
The second question at Bowden's press conference came from a reporter who wondered how frustrating nine years of special teams problems had been to Bowden through his tenure with the Tigers. The coach was stunningly dismissive of a flaw that has been all too apparent since his first season in 1999.
Bowden dared to suggest that the problems had popped up only recently, in the last two seasons.
"When you make it seem like a major disaster, I'd like to see your accumulation of statistics to make it seem like it was that bad," Bowden said. "If you can find better statistics, let me know."
Consider him informed after the 41-23 loss to the Hokies. At halftime, Tech had totaled 98 yards on 26 offensive plays and was up 31-8.
Take a wild guess what forced Clemson into the 23-point hole. The Tigers gave up a touchdown on a 100-yard kickoff return by Victor Harris, and another on an 82-yard punt return by Eddie Royal. Add in a 32-yard interception return for a score on the game's third play from scrimmage, and Tech had three non-offensive touchdowns in the first half.
"Obviously, we still need to work on special teams," Bowden said in the aftermath. "We've got starters on there. Right now the starters aren't good enough in the position we're putting them."
On Royal's punt return, which put Tech up 17-0 with 4:48 left in the first quarter, Clemson was indeed in position to make a tackle. Two of the defense's best tacklers, starting cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor, were the first to greet Royal when he hauled in the punt. Royal made a cut to the right, Chancellor whiffed, and Royal followed excellent blocking the rest of the way.
Though the Tigers were set up to make a play on the punt return, confusion preceded Harris' kickoff jaunt. After Mark Buchholz kicked a second-quarter field goal to provide a bit of momentum, Clemson had to call a timeout before the subsequent kickoff. First-year assistant Andre Powell, hired primarily to shore up the kickoff coverage, which stunk last year, couldn't get the right personnel onto the field.
The timeout kept the Tigers from covering the kick with 10 men, but 11 men didn't offer much resistance as Harris weaved across the field and down the sideline to make it 24-3.
Also in the first half, Royal had a 33-yard punt return that set up a field goal. And a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown by guess who? Royal was called back because of a block in the back.
For Clemson fans, it was the second time in a week they had to sit through an abysmal special teams effort. And a week before the Georgia Tech loss, the Tigers had allowed N.C. State's Darrell Blackman to return a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.
"One kickoff return in five games is not bad," Bowden said before the Virginia Tech defeat.
Special teams miscues are nothing new under Bowden, but he'd have you believe they are. In early October, he grossly misrepresented statistics to paint a picture of special teams brilliance in his first seven years at the helm.
"We went seven years without having a punt blocked, seven years without having a kickoff returned, seven years without having a field goal blocked," he said. "That wouldn't to me be a nine-year consistent problem. ... Seven years without a blocked punt? That's better than Virginia Tech."
Bowden's statistics were inaccurate. Make that outrageously inaccurate. The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier dug up the numbers from Bowden's first eight seasons, and they weren't pretty: 12 punts blocked, five field goals blocked, three kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Add this season's two blocked punts, and Clemson has allowed 14 under Bowden. And in 10 of the Tigers' past 16 losses, dating to the start of the 2004 season, special teams mistakes played a role.
That certainly sounds like a fundamental problem. Bowden made it seem like anything but heading into the Virginia Tech game, but the debacle that followed left him no choice but to suck it up and face the facts. Finally.
"I've got to throw it back on myself," he said.
OFFENSIVE LINE ALSO FAILING
Clemson's woes go a lot deeper than special teams.
Another poor performance by the offensive line made it easy to wonder whether the Tigers will have to abandon their running game against strong defensive fronts.
That's exactly what they had to do against the Hokies, who made it clear early that the running lanes for James Davis and C.J. Spiller would be few and far between. Davis and Spiller, the team's showcase players, combined for 12 yards on 12 carries. Davis didn't get his first carry until the Tigers' sixth possession.
Getting thrown into an early 17-0 hole made Clemson revert almost solely to the passing game, but the Tigers probably wouldn't have been able to run the ball even had they not been in such a hole.
"Every time we ran, we got virtually nothing," Bowden said. "So we had to give up."
Two weeks earlier at N.C. State, Clemson rolled up 340 rushing yards. Davis and Spiller combined for 280 of those yards, in a game that supposedly signaled a revitalization of the ground game.
Against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, the Tigers ran for only 42 yards (including lost yardage from sacks), with Davis and Spiller totaling 74 yards on 33 carries for an average of 2.24 yards per attempt.
Quarterback Cullen Harper threw for 566 yards in the two games, but this team will be mediocre and maybe worse if Davis and Spiller aren't producing.
"We need to repair some things and heal some wounds," offensive coordinator Rob Spence said. "There's nothing that can't be fixed. We're still alive and kicking."