October 26, 2005
CLEMSON - After whipping Temple as expected, Clemson stood at 4-3 with momentum on its side.
The Tigers were more than halfway through their 2005 slate, but their season still stood in front of them. The final four games will determine everything for this team: at Georgia Tech, Duke, Florida State, at South Carolina. To get to a decent bowl, the Tigers are going to have to find another gear.
The latest season-saver under coach Tommy Bowden may turn out to be the Tigers' stunning performance at N.C. State. Everything was against the Tigers. They hadn't played well in Raleigh in recent years. They had never won a Thursday game on ESPN. N.C. State was coming off an uplifting victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
But Bowden has proven time and time again that he has the ability to get the Tigers to come up big in bleak situations, and he pulled yet another rabbit out of his hat in Raleigh. Clemson dominated the first half and went on to pound the Wolfpack. Carter-Finley Stadium emptied quickly, and Bowden put Chuck Amato on a hotter seat.
Using freshman tailback James Davis and some accurate throws from senior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, the Tigers showed remarkable balance against State: 246 passing yards, 243 rushing. The performance also added to a remarkable stat. The Tigers are 43-0-1 when they rush for 200 yards or more and pass for 200 yards or more in the same game.
Davis rushed for 143 yards (a single-game record for a Clemson freshman) on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns before fracturing his left wrist early in the second half. He was expected to miss three to four weeks, but insiders said the Atlanta native desperately wants to play against Georgia Tech on Oct. 29.
Another surprise returnee against the Yellow Jackets may be tight end Cole Downer, who had his spleen removed after the Miami game on Sept. 17. Initial reports after the surgery were that Downer's career was finished. But Downer has stayed in condition, and both he and his mother are pushing team doctors to let the senior back on the field. The Tech game will be six weeks to the day since Downer had the surgery that saved his life.
Whitehurst, who became Clemson's all-time total offense leader in the Temple game, played like a senior against N.C. State and Temple. In those two games, he completed 41 of 58 passes for 553 yards and four touchdowns. Whitehurst made more deep throws against the Owls' cover-two scheme than he had all season.
The Tigers also may have found a go-to receiver. Aaron Kelly, a 6-5, 180-pound redshirt freshman from Marietta, Ga., recently made a giant step forward. In Clemson's first five games, he caught 19 passes for 165 yards. Against State and Temple, he caught 12 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. His 155 receiving yards against Temple set a freshman single-game record at Clemson.
While the offense had 995 total yards against N.C. State and Temple, the defense also had two solid performances.
After getting picked apart at Wake Forest, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning started mixing in more of his 3-3-5 formation. Koenning prefers to get pressure with a four-man front, but it just hadn't happened, and it probably wasn't going to happen. The 3-3-5 allows the Tigers to be more unpredictable. The results were promising: State managed just 267 total yards, and Temple had just 12 yards rushing.
FOUR UNIQUE CHALLENGES REMAIN
The Tigers will start their stretch run in Atlanta. The shocking loss to Georgia Tech last year in Death Valley ruined Clemson's season. The Tigers had the game in hand, but a fumbled punt snap and a Reggie Ball-to-Calvin Johnson touchdown pass in the closing seconds doomed the Tigers to one of their most bitter defeats.
Eight of the last nine games between Clemson and Tech have been decided by five points or less. The lone exception was Clemson's 39-3 victory in Atlanta in 2003.
The Duke game on Nov. 5 will be the final Suspension Game of the season. Two players - linebacker Anthony Waters and guard Roman Fry - sat out the Temple game for their involvement in the 2004 South Carolina brawl. Three more - linebacker Maurice Nelson, guard Nathan Bennett and cornerback Duane Coleman - still have suspensions to serve. The Duke game is the mostly likely choice.
Clemson's loss at Duke last year was a total embarrassment for the program. The Tigers have waited a year to deal with the Devils.
Daddy Bowden comes calling on Nov. 12 for Clemson's final home game of the season. The last time FSU came to Death Valley, the Seminoles were totally dominated. If the Tigers are going to beat the Seminoles for the second time in three years, they're going to have to shore up their special teams.
Through seven games, Clemson had three punts blocked. Bowden said punter Cole Chason gets the ball off in time (even if it doesn't go very far), so the problem is the protection. When Clemson and FSU play, the Seminoles usually dominate the special teams. Clemson entered the Temple game 12th in the ACC in net punting at 28.8 yards. You can bet just about everything you've got that FSU will put a lot of pressure on Chason.
Bowden also hasn't been happy with Clemson's kickoff return unit, so the week before the Temple game he named Kelly and Tyler Grisham as the kick returners. Grisham had one kickoff return for 24 yards against the Owls.
Bowden is hoping victory No. 6 will be in hand before the Tigers have to journey to South Carolina on Nov. 19. USC has been erratic in coach Steve Spurrier's first season in Columbia, but you can be assured that the Gamecocks will take their best shot.
In the last two meetings, Clemson outscored South Carolina 92-24, but the last two games don't mean a thing. Spurrier certainly will have a trap waiting.