September 2, 2002
CLEMSON - Entering the opener against No. 8 Georgia, Clemson had more questions than answers.
The offensive line was new, the quarterback was untested, and the entire defense under new defensive coordinator John Lovett was totally unknown. All of those question marks came through against Georgia. Where the Tigers lost the Georgia game was where the Tigers often lose to the Bulldogs - on special teams.
Clemson put on one of the worst displays of special teams play in recent memory:
- After getting flagged for being offsides on a kickoff, the Tigers had to kick again. Georgia's Fred Gibson returned it 91 yards for a touchdown. It was the first kickoff returned for a touchdown against Clemson in 12 years.
- On the next possession, Clemson was stopped and forced to punt. Wynn Kopp, the Georgia transfer who has spent much of his career in Tommy Bowden's doghouse, dropped the snap and then shanked the punt. The Tigers' coverage team then stood around and watched Georgia pick up the 17-yard boot and return it inside the Clemson 18. The Bulldogs used three plays to punch that mistake into the end zone.
Before the game, Bowden fretted about Kopp's inconsistency. It's time for Bowden to pull a Danny Ford and advertise for a punter from the student body. As Georgia fans knew long ago, Kopp just can't get it done and is especially poor under pressure.
- Georgia's Damien Gary returned a punt 40 yards to the Clemson 31 to set up Georgia's tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
- Aaron Hunt missed two crucial field goals. The first miss (from 37 yards) killed Clemson's momentum in the third quarter, and the second miss (from 46 yards) sealed the victory for Georgia. Hunt has made one clutch field goal in his career - the game-winner against South Carolina in 2000. But that's it. Like Kopp, he still struggles on a kick-to-kick basis with consistency, especially under pressure.
Clemson's special teams mistakes cost the Tigers 24 points and wasted a solid effort by the defense and a strong first start by Simmons.
Who is responsible for Clemson's special teams? You guessed it. Jack Hines, Bowden's brother-in-law and the same coach who made a mess of Clemson's secondary last season. Now, apparently, he's working his same magic on the special teams. Even Bowden said after the game that it was the worst special teams play he had ever been around as a college coach.
Georgia always seems to hurt Clemson in special teams. Before the game, Bowden said his team spends more than enough time on special teams. Perhaps that time isn't being well-spent and needs to be refocused. In addition to the poor kicking, the coverage looked erratic and the tackling was sloppy.
Can most of it be fixed? Definitely. Beyond the identities of the kicker and punter, where some ACC teams (Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland) simply have it and some (UNC, N.C. State, Virginia, Wake Forest) don't, special teams play is nothing more than good coaching and personal desire. Clemson has the talent and the speed necessary to have good special teams. The most difficult item to fix will be the kickers themselves. Kopp is a mental mess, and nobody knows if Hunt will make his next big kick.
Simmons, Line Make Statements
As for the rest of the team, the Tigers look to be in much better shape than most predicted. (The Sports Journal had them third in the ACC.) Those who had this team pegged for sixth or seventh in the league, and there were many, may want to reconsider.
Simmons looked calm, cool and collected in the pocket. He made one bad throw in the first quarter that was tipped and intercepted, and he held on to the ball too long a few times. But his effort was good enough to win. He completed 17 of 37 throws for 165 yards and had two bombs dropped. With Simmons playing well and a deep stable of talented wide receivers on hand, Woodrow Dantzler soon may be a distant memory.
Simmons has a serious arm. He threw one ball (an Airese Currie drop) 70 yards in the air. He can throw the ball with touch or he can deliver a bullet. His sense of when to get rid of the ball to avoid a sack should improve with more playing time.
Clemson also showed some promise on the ground. Tailbacks Bernard Rambert, Yusef Kelly and Chad Jasmin all ran hard and tough. The offensive line, with four new starters, held up pretty well against Georgia's relentless pressure. The Bulldogs mixed in some new blitzes in the second half that caused some problems, but for the most part Simmons had enough time to throw.
Lovett's Defense Showing Promise
The most impressive phase of Clemson's game was the defense. It allowed three touchdowns, but two came on a short field after special teams blunders. Lovett rotated his lineup and played several young players.
Georgia's Musa Smith rushed for 105 yards, but he earned every inch. Quarterback David Greene got pounded by the Tigers. Even after a questionable roughing the passer penalty early in the game, the men in orange continued to pound away on Greene. They also forced three turnovers and turned one of those turnovers directly into a touchdown, a 55-yard fumble return by end Bryant McNeal.
Clemson's secondary, which was burned to a crisp several times last season, played one of its best games in recent memory. The coverage was tight, and when a catch was made, the tackling was crisp and physical. Georgia's longest pass of the game was for 24 yards.
Lovett's defense still is a work in progress. During the game, it was obvious that the confidence level of Clemson's defensive players increased with each series. Lovett is still working with his players to get them to do things the way he wants them done. He said after the game that some of the players were coming off the field saying they needed to do some things differently, and that he quickly reminded them that things were going to be done his way.
It's going to take some time for the players to totally buy into Lovett's system, but major progress was made in the Georgia game. Clemson's defense looks like it's on the road to recovery after three years of sliding under the direction of Reggie Herring.
So, where do the Tigers go from here? The Tigers return home for three straight and the middle game of that home stand (Georgia Tech) will go a long way toward determining the rest of Clemson's season.
The last six games between Tech and Clemson have been decided by three points. If the Tigers can beat the Yellow Jackets for the second year in a row, they will set themselves up for a high finish in the ACC. They won't upset Florida State in Tallahassee, but they are capable of beating everyone else in the league.
Another Media Friendly Gesture?
Clemson has done it again. Before Bowden's first press conference on Aug. 27, sports information director Tim Bourret handed out parking passes to the media. The media was told the parking passes were necessary to keep from getting a $90 ticket or being towed.
The lot the media uses for the press conferences is next to the McFadden Building, which is on the far end of campus. It's too far out for anyone but athletic staff members and visitors (media) to use. The only reason anyone would be in that lot writing tickets is if the doughnut shop ran out of doughnuts.
Parking on college campuses is always an issue, but Clemson recently hired a new police chief who apparently supplements his budget by going wild with the ticket book.