October 4, 2004 CLEMSON Immediately after the 41-22 loss to Florida State on Sept. 25, the spin started spinning out of control at Clemson.
After his offensive unit scored just seven points in Tallahassee, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said he was going to stay the course and that there would be no major changes in the Tigers' hurry-up-and-wait offense. It's difficult to believe Bowden will stand pat, but he seems bound and determined to go down with his apparently sinking ship.
Through September, Clemson was last in the nation in turnover margin at minus-12. No one can remember the last time a Clemson football team was last in a national statistical category. The turnover problem was so bad in the first four games that Bowden started calling other coaches Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, Lloyd Carr of Michigan, Pete Carroll of Southern California and a few others and asking them how to force more turnovers and how to stop them. There were no good answers.
How bad is the state of Clemson football? The week after the FSU game, one of the leading Clemson websites highlighted the fact that two of the Tigers' basketball players Akin Akingbala and Shawan Robinson made the 2003-04 ACC All-Academic team. At this school, any mention of hoops before January is a very bad sign.
Bowden even has started talking about the future. He has said that, in the near future, Clemson will have one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. If the coach really believes that, maybe, just maybe, Bowden, an ultra-conservative Baptist, has changed from grape juice to the real stuff for communion. According to several defensive coaches in the league, the Tigers' offensive line might rank 10th in the 11-team conference this fall. Even if some young blockers develop quickly, true dominance seems at least a few years away.
Bowden also said the Tigers were just a few plays away from being 3-1 instead of 1-3. What he failed to mention was that the Tigers also were just a couple of plays away from being 0-4.
On the Monday after the loss to Florida State, offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain told the Greenville (S.C.) Touchdown Club the Tigers were close to being a good offensive team. If that's true, Roseanne Barr is close to being a good singer.
Meanwhile, everybody associated with the program wants to know: What's wrong with Charlie Whitehurst? There are many theories about the quarterback's struggles, but no easy answers. Two things are certain. Whitehurst is pressing, and he's not getting much help from his patchwork offensive line.
There even has been some hilarious talk by clueless fans about benching Whitehurst. What? Who would replace him? Will Proctor? A true freshman? There isn't anybody on the entire roster who's even close to being ready. Receiver Chansi Stuckey and cornerback C.J. Gaddis, who arrived at Clemson as quarterbacks, likely would need a major adjustment period at this point in the season. The only real chance the Tigers have to pull out of their current nosedive is to keep Whitehurst at quarterback and hope he doesn't get broken in half.
Another popular question is this: Where is the running game? Six years into his regime, Bowden still doesn't have a running game. Few things irritate Clemson fans more than to see their team get physically manhandled at the line of scrimmage.
Defensively, the Tigers put up a good fight against Florida State, but cornerback Justin Miller got burned deep again (by second-team quarterback Wyatt Sexton) and the Seminoles were able to run the ball late in the game thanks to some sloppy tackling. Miller returned two kicks for touchdowns against FSU, setting an NCAA record for kick return yardage. That display led to more talk of Miller playing on offense, but the Tigers would be better served by more consistent play from him at cornerback.
It's time for the spin to end. Clemson's chance for a great 2004 season is gone forever. There's not going to be a dramatic comeback this time. The Tigers already are out of the ACC race, and if they're not careful they'll soon be out of bowl contention. It's time to start trying to hang on to the recruits who already have committed and to find some more impact players for 2005. Linemen and running backs remain at the top of the list.
Extremely Dangerous Road Ahead
If the Tigers lose in Charlottesville (a high probability) and fall to 1-4, that means they will have to win five of their last six games just to become bowl-eligible. And even if they reach that suddenly difficult status, there's no guarantee that there will be a bowl for them to attend.
The three most likely victories on the remaining schedule are Utah State, Duke and South Carolina. Utah State is awful; that's why Clemson scheduled the Aggies for homecoming. Duke is woeful, too, but not a sure thing. The Blue Devils have had several good Clemson teams on the ropes in Durham through the years. South Carolina, of course, is Clemson's archrival, and the Gamecocks would love nothing more than to beat the downtrodden Tigers in Death Valley after the Tigers pounded them in Columbia last year.
Outside of those three games and Virginia, the Tigers have Maryland, N.C. State and Miami left on the schedule. Ralph Friedgen owns the Tigers. He beat them when he was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, and he's beat them as the head coach at Maryland. New N.C. State defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, who was pushed out of town by Bowden, has the nation's top-ranked defense in Raleigh. He won't say it publicly, but Herring has had State's trip to Clemson circled (we're guessing three times in red) on his calendar for months. Bowden will have to make some offensive changes for the State game, or Herring will hand him his head. The Tigers have to face Miami in the Orange Bowl.
You do the math. However you calculate it, six victories appear very unlikely. If the Tigers somehow can pull off a minor miracle and finish with a winning season, Bowden can pull out another Bible story the one about how Jesus calmed the raging sea to save his disciples. At this point, that would be some very impressive work.
Fast Pace Among Offensive Options
Bowden said he's not going to make any changes, but he can't just stand there and watch his offense continually flop around.
When Clemson started 1-3 in 1985, Danny Ford removed passing quarterback Randy Anderson and inserted running quarterback Rodney Williams. Ken Hatfield, in desperation, once put cornerback Dexter McCleon at quarterback and beat Virginia to death with the option. With his offense in a funk, Tommy West grabbed the headsets and coached the Tigers to an ugly victory over Maryland.
In other words, when things were going bad, the head man did more than make excuses and play what-if games. Bowden needs to show some leadership. He needs to prove to his players that he has the situation under control, to give them a good reason to believe.
Bowden did make a Ford-like move during the week before the Virginia game, ordering several extremely physical practices. Quickly, the body count started mounting. The coach's reaction: "If they can't practice, they can't play." Bowden also tweaked the depth chart during the off-week, elevating more younger players into starting roles.
What are the other options? Whitehurst seems to perform better when he doesn't have to stand around as much. The offensive line likely would benefit from not having to stay in a stance for 20 seconds. How about mixing up the snap counts? The Tigers have looked effective in their two-minute package.
Injured running back Duane Coleman returned to the starting lineup for the Virginia game, but he's no savior. Kelvin Grant looks like a wide receiver, but he can't catch the ball consistently. Who can? Once the receivers are identified, Bowden and O'Cain can concentrate on shoring up the protection for Whitehurst.
Clemson has two hard-nosed fullbacks in Cliff Harrell and Steven Jackson. How about lining up in the I-formation and doing something besides running it up the gut? Or using the backs to buy Whitehurst some more time? A possible curveball is Stuckey. If he can become comfortable with some of the single-wing plays Woody Dantzler ran so successfully for the Tigers, it certainly will give opposing defenses something else to think about.