July 20, 2005
CLEMSON -- If this Clemson team accomplishes all that it hopes and all that it can, the play could go down as one of those moments that is replayed, re-told and remembered for years.
Senior defensive end Gaines Adams unearthed one of those potential "forever" plays on the first play of the fourth quarter at Wake Forest. With Clemson showing no signs of digging itself out of a two-touchdown hole that was on the verge of becoming a 17-point canyon, Adams came up with a certified game-changer.
On a 42-yard field goal attempt by Sam Swank, Demon Deacons holder Jon Temple botched the snap and then inexplicably rose and stood, as if in slow motion. That's when Adams, like a vulture moving in on a plump Thanksgiving turkey, belted Temple and forced the ball to pop free.
After watching Adams pluck the ball from the air and race untouched 66 yards for a touchdown, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden felt probably the most rapid momentum shift of his coaching career. The Tigers used the spark to score 17 more fourth-quarter points and win 27-17.
Everyone was talking about the potential meaning of Adams' play in the aftermath, but it might not be the stuff of storybooks if Clemson doesn't improve in other areas. The Tigers will have a hard time winning the Atlantic Division and challenging for their first ACC title in 15 years if they continue to gag on kickoffs and field goals.
That's something Bowden was able to recognize easily, as he stood in a corridor at Groves Stadium about 25 minutes after his team barely managed to exorcise its Winston-Salem demons, winning there for the first time since 2001.
Bowden lauded his team for its resolve in the face of adversity that might have overwhelmed most of his previous teams. He joked that Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who had taken him close to hell by dealing Bowden defeats in 2003 and 2005, gave Bowden visions of Hades again on this trip to Groves.
But beneath all of that, Bowden was unmistakably irate that, six games in, this team still can't cover kickoffs. Or kick an extra point that doesn't get blocked or flirt with an upright.
"I've got two major problems," Bowden said. "Kickoff coverage and the kicking game. It's costly, and that's why I'm so frustrated. It's not like we surely haven't tried, that it surely hasn't been discussed, that we surely haven't met on it, and that it hasn't been coached on. And it's still not corrected."
Translation: Bowden plans to hold two people accountable. His patience appears close to spent with assistant David Blackwell, who's in charge of kickoff coverage. He's exasperated with Jad Dean, a senior who has plummeted into a wretched funk after establishing himself as one of the best kickers in the nation as a junior.
Clemson ranks 108th nationally in kickoff coverage, giving up 24.5 yards per return. That average probably would be worse had Bowden not ordered Dean to squib every one of his remaining kicks, after Wake took the opening kickoff 93 yards.
On Sept. 9, Boston College freshman Jeff Smith returned five kicks for 213 yards an a touchdown to help the Eagles twice surmount 10-point deficits and win 34-33 in double overtime. Bowden was confident that the problems would be resolved, and they were, but for only two games.
After improving against Florida State and North Carolina, the Tigers fell back into the rut when they allowed Louisiana Tech 148 yards on five returns. After the debacle at Wake, Bowden made it apparent that he might coach kickoff coverage all by himself.
"When problems are still not corrected," Bowden said, "they shift to me."
Dean's problems aren't even close to being corrected. He entered the game having been unsuccessful on an extra point in five of his previous six games dating to last season, and he was lucky to convert after the three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Two ugly snap hooks barely squeezed inside the left upright, and another kick miraculously dribbled over the crossbar after it was tipped at the line.
"Major, major problems there," he said.
It's so bad that Bowden seriously mentioned walk-on John Early as a possible replacement for Dean on extra points.
These are not good signs for a team that, despite all of the good vibes generated by its 5-1 start, plays host to Georgia Tech on Oct. 21, then visits Virginia Tech on a Thursday night just five days later. More than anyone, Bowden knows that Adams' incredible play will be reduced to a mere footnote if the Tigers don't correct these problems -- and fast.
INJURIES COMPLICATE AERIAL ATTACK
The injury bug has moved from Clemson's defense to its receiving corps.
Four days after losing senior All-ACC wideout Chansi Stuckey for three to five weeks with a broken foot, the Tigers took another hit when sophomore Rendrick Taylor suffered a broken elbow against Wake Forest.
The Tigers' receivers have deteriorated rapidly from a diverse, big-play group into a thin, young collection of mostly unproven players. The only upperclassman of the group is junior La'Donte Harris, who doesn't get much playing time.
Sophomore Aaron Kelly came up big against the Deacons with five catches for 91 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown grab that tied the score at 17. But otherwise, it's hard to count on guys such as Harris, Jacoby Ford (freshman), Tyler Grisham (sophomore) and Andrew Diomande (sophomore).
Grisham probably will be featured more to try to compensate for Stuckey's absence on underneath routes. Also, expect coordinator Rob Spence to focus more on the tailbacks and tight ends.
Tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for six catches for 66 yards at Wake Forest, and their presence in the passing game should intensify.
All indications are that Stuckey will be out against Georgia Tech, and only the most optimistic projections have him returning for Virginia Tech. A more likely return date is Nov. 4 against Maryland, and the Tigers could miss him dearly against the Yellow Jackets and Hokies.