July 20, 2005
CLEMSON -- Two weeks ago, an ominous fog enveloped Clemson's football program.
The Tigers had just been dealt a 34-33 loss at Boston College in double overtime, and the defeat was even more excruciating because the Eagles won courtesy of a blocked extra point.
Making matters even more dire, the defense was losing players to injury at an alarming rate. All this, and Clemson had to turn around and go to Florida State while staring at the specter of an 0-2 start in ACC play.
For a team that had designs on challenging for its first ACC title in 15 years, the 2006 season was following a familiar script of a slow start ruining hopes of conference contention.
But then, the Tigers rose up and offered a revision to that script, and they did it dramatically and emphatically.
A 27-20 triumph at FSU, sealed on an 85-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes, gave Clemson its first victory in Tallahassee since 1989. A 52-7 pounding of North Carolina a week later provided a good indication that the Tigers are dead set on making a serious run at the ACC title.
"To back it up with this type of performance shows something a little bit more than what we have shown in the past, showing up two weeks in a row," coach Tommy Bowden said. "It's an awful good sign."
Not long after gloom and impending doom surrounded the Tigers, almost all signs point toward a team that is fit to claim the Atlantic Division and advance to the ACC title game in Jacksonville.
Bowden's teams had made a habit of following huge wins with huge disappointments. Two years ago, Clemson won at Miami and lost at Duke in a one-week span. And, of course, the Tigers also have managed to lose twice to Wake Forest in the past three years. Those defeats, coupled with major victories over the Hurricanes, FSU (twice) and Tennessee since late 2003, underscore the roller-coaster ride Bowden hoped to end in his eighth season at Clemson.
The waxing of the Tar Heels, Clemson's most decisive ACC victory since 2000, served notice that the Tigers may be done with the fabulous-one-week, flat-the-next routine. They jumped on UNC from the start with fury that didn't relent until the game had long since been decided.
Clemson rushed for 324 yards and scored all seven touchdowns on the ground. The Tigers held the Tar Heels to one first down on their first six possessions and limited them to just 84 yards in the first three quarters.
For the 1981 national title team that was honored at halftime at Death Valley, the form of this victory looked familiar: overpowering running game, stifling defense, dominating victory.
"It was a statement game," said sophomore tailback James Davis, who had four of the rushing touchdowns. "It's a totally different team from other years and so forth. We're trying to be like the 1981 team who came here and won a championship. We're striving for those same goals, to come out and dominate like those guys did."
Domination certainly appears to be in the cards, given Clemson's upcoming schedule. The Tigers shouldn't have much trouble at home against Louisiana Tech, and they should be able to win at Wake Forest a week later, despite their recent futility in Winston-Salem. A virtually guaranteed victory over pathetic Temple would give Clemson a 6-1 record heading into two huge games in a five-day stretch -- at home against Georgia Tech on Oct. 21, then a Thursday night trip to Virginia Tech on Oct. 26.
Clemson has proved a lot in the past two weeks, but two things stand out.
Quarterback Will Proctor, a fifth-year senior who backed up Charlie Whitehurst as a sophomore and junior, demonstrated remarkable mettle against FSU. Proctor's numbers were better against Boston College, but the poise and accuracy he showed in Tallahassee inspired confidence for the rest of the season.
Also, the defense still can be formidable, despite a nauseating bout with injuries. Senior linebackers Anthony Waters (torn ACL) and Tramaine Billie (broken ankle) are out, as is sophomore safety Michael Hamlin (broken foot).
Second-year coordinator Vic Koenning deftly improvised against the Seminoles and Tar Heels, coming up with schemes that helped the Tigers limit the two teams to 354 total yards. Clemson starts five sophomores, and 22 players on the two-deep are either freshmen or sophomores. But the defense's ability to maintain a high level of play is a tribute to Koenning and the increased talent level that's now on hand.
Several hours after the Tigers wrapped up their pummeling of the Tar Heels, Clemson claimed another victory with N.C. State's dramatic win over BC. The Eagles, Tigers and Seminoles now have one conference loss apiece, and Clemson likes its chances of beating those two teams out to win the Atlantic.
Two weeks ago, the Clemson vibe couldn't have been much worse, after the defeat at Boston College. Now, the outlook can't look much brighter, for a team that's probably playing the best football in the ACC.
COACHES FAILED KICKING GAME
The day after Florida State scored nine points off a blocked field goal and extra point, Bowden had an admission to make: The Tigers' almost comical inability to kick field goals had nothing to do with bad protection and everything to do with kicker Jad Dean's slow approach.
The revelation came after Bowden and his staff evaluated Dean's "get-off" time on tape. Bowden said the kicks would not have been blocked had Dean's time been faster.
Bowden was initially under the impression that the blocks were a result of poor protection. Given that the field goal problems cost the Tigers dearly in the loss at Boston College, it was almost shocking that it took the staff a week to spot the culprit.
Clemson lost at Chestnut Hill after Jolonn Dunbar tore through the left side of the line and blocked Dean's extra point try, allowing the Eagles to win on a touchdown and extra point. Bowden ripped the team's protection immediately after the game, and he stuck to that assessment the following week.
Apparently, that evaluation was wrong. Bowden said it was his fault, shifting the blame from assistant Brad Scott. The problem seemed resolved against North Carolina, when Dean converted all seven extra points and made a 42-yard field goal late.
One question: How in the world did it take so long for the staff to figure out that protection wasn't the problem? You'd think such a costly error against BC would have provoked a full-scale examination of the issue.
Instead, it took seven days for the staff to catch on. Had the blocked kicks ultimately cost Clemson the FSU game, the oversight would have been unforgivable.