By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
November 11, 2002 CLEMSON With their confidence rattled and their season slipping away, the Tigers got a few breaks.
The schedule lined them up against the two worst teams in the ACC Duke and North Carolina. But the two-game road trip to Tobacco Road wasn't as easy as it looked on paper. The Tigers had to come from behind to win both games.
Along the way, Clemson found a quarterback. Redshirt freshman Charlie Whitehurst is not the most graceful player ever to play the position, but he does seem to have some of the intangibles Willie Simmons was missing. In his first two starts, Whitehurst threw for 694 yards and eight touchdowns. He set Clemson single-game records for completions (34) and yards (420) and tied the record for touchdown passes (four) against Duke.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Whitehurst and Simmons is that Whitehurst takes care of the ball. In his first two starts, Whitehurst lost just one fumble, and that one wasn't entirely his fault. Running back Bernard Rambert whiffed on a block and allowed Duke's blitz to get to Whitehurst.
Another obvious difference between Whitehurst and Simmons is touch on the ball. Many of the passes Simmons threw were panic-filled bullets. Whitehurst drops back, moves around, then lofts passes to his receivers. His 83-yard touchdown pass to Airese Currie for Clemson's first touchdown in the UNC game was an arching throw that dropped over mismatched safety DeFonte Coleman and connected with Currie in stride.
There were numerous stories written before and after the Duke game about Simmons and how he was handling the demotion. There was some fear that demoting Simmons might cause some internal problems, but Simmons has handled the move with class. He doesn't like it, but he has been very supportive of Whitehurst. The way Whitehurst has performed, it would be difficult for Simmons to do anything else but put on a brave face. The change in quarterbacks was not personality-based. It was performance-based.
In defense of Simmons, he is paying a penalty for not getting more playing time last season. The coaching staff locked in on Woodrow Dantzler, even when Dantzler was having an off game, and rarely gave Simmons a chance. If Simmons had gotten more snaps last season, he might have had a better chance to be successful this season.
Another positive factor for the Tigers has been Whitehurst's poise. He looks confident, and he makes good decisions. With the Tigers trailing Duke 24-10 in the fourth quarter, he completed a fourth-down pass to Currie for a touchdown to ignite a Clemson rally. He runs the offense like it is supposed to be run, and he has done a good job of spreading the ball around.
At 6-4 in mid-November, the Tigers became bowl-eligible for the fourth straight season under Bowden. Insiders said the team's most likely postseason spot is the Tangerine Bowl, which has scouted several Clemson home games. Some Tangerine officials believe they erred last year, when they picked N.C. State over the Tigers. If given a chance this season, the Orlando bowl probably won't make the same mistake twice, especially if the Tigers can finish with a winning record.
Maryland will provide the last major challenge of the season. The Terps are simply better than the Tigers, who would have to play their best game of the season to win. Slumping South Carolina, which comes to Clemson on Nov. 23, looked to be dead in the water after getting blanked by Arkansas. Anything can happen in a rivalry game, but the home team likely will be the favorite.
As mentioned all season in the Sports Journal, the focus remains off head coach Tommy Bowden, especially after the back-to-back wins in the Triangle. But rest assured he's not getting paid more than $1 million annually to win seven or eight games a season.