September 13, 2005
CLEMSON -- The Clemson offense is definitely different under first-year coordinator Rob Spence, but to many fans of the Tigers, it looks like something they've seen before. And with two come-from-behind victories in the first two weeks of the season, the Tigers are ahead of just about everybody's schedule.
In their 25-24 opening victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 3, the Tigers used just six different running plays, ran the ball 51 times and threw it just 24 times. They dominated time of possession 37:58 to 22:02. In their 28-24 victory at Maryland on Sept. 10, they opened the game with a 17-play touchdown drive that used most of the first quarter, then they scored two touchdowns in the final 8:37 to win.
Sound familiar, Danny Ford fans?
Contrary to comments recently made by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, the Tigers are not quitters. They trailed both A&M and Maryland and came from behind to win. Eight of Clemson's last 13 games have been decided by seven points or less, and the Tigers are 6-2 in those games.
Obviously, there are some enormous differences from what the Tigers did during their glory days in the 1980s. Clemson used 16 different formations in their opener, there is no option element, and the passing game consists largely of sideways throws and dumps to the running backs and tight ends. Yes, the tight ends.
But the Tigers have displayed a confidence in the running game they haven't showed in many years. Spence is committed to the ground attack, and now the players know it for sure. During the drive for the winning field goal against A&M, the Tigers ran on eight consecutive plays, all by freshman tailback James Davis. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry during the drive. The winning TD against Maryland came on a 37-yard run by Reggie Merriweather.
"To be a great team, you have to be physical and you have to be able to run the ball," Spence said, "especially at the end of the game."
Davis, Clemson's most high-profile signee from the 2005 class, caused a big stir during preseason camp when he left for a couple of days and returned home to the Atlanta area. Coach Tommy Bowden said Davis left because he was homesick. When Davis returned and was allowed to talk to the media, he said the reason he left was not homesickness.
Davis said he went home because he was unhappy with the way he was being used in camp. He wanted the ball, and the coaches weren't giving it to him. Davis said he thought about transferring, but then decided that would just mess up his college career. So he returned to camp, seeking more repetitions with the No. 1 offense.
The way Davis started the season, Clemson's future opponents definitely are wishing he stayed home in Atlanta or was playing at some two-year military school somewhere.
The Tigers have four quality running backs, but Davis took the lead in the opener with 101 yards on 19 carries. He got his shot against A&M, and he didn't waste it. He followed up his effort against A&M with 82 yards on 20 carries against Maryland, and he did not have a single carry for negative yardage against the Terps. Against the Aggies, Davis became Clemson's first true freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in his first game since Bobby Gage rushed for 144 yards on eight carries against Presbyterian in 1945.
"James showed great determination and toughness," Spence said after the A&M game. "With talent like that, age is indifferent. He's way beyond his age as far as ability. He is going to be a great player."
Clemson had to kick three short field goals against A&M because they could not run the ball inside the 10-yard line. For some reason, yet to be explained, the coaching staff kept putting backup Duane Coleman into the game for the goal-line situations. Coleman could not get into the end zone because he was too busy running sideways.
During one series late in the second quarter, Coleman ran for six yards to the A&M two-yard line, then lost three yards on the next two carries. Clemson was forced to kick a field goal. The same thing happened late in the third quarter. Two carries by Coleman got the ball to the A&M one-yard line, but on third down Coleman was stuffed, and Jad Dean came in to kick his fourth field goal. Merriweather had a fast finish last season, but he had just two carries in the red zone against the Aggies.
The goal-line situation was corrected against Maryland. Merriweather was re-inserted in goal-line situations, and the offense, which did not score a touchdown against A&M, scored four TDs. Merriweather scored on a one-yard run on fourth down and a 37-yard run against the Terps.
Davis is effective because he gets his pads down and he can wiggle for three or four yards on plays where the rest of the Tigers' backs would get nothing. He is something Bowden has desired since coming to Clemson -- a back who wants the ball and knows what to do with it when he gets it, a back with an attitude.
Defense: Bending, Not Breaking
So far, Spence has total control of his offense. In three preseason scrimmages and two regular-season games, the Tigers had zero turnovers, although the bad punt snap that led to a Maryland touchdown had the same effect as a turnover.
The passing game is not high-risk. Senior Charlie Whitehurst completed 14 of 19 attempts for 185 yards against A&M and was 18-for-22 for 178 yards against Maryland. His longest pass against Maryland was a 51-yard touchdown to Curtis Baham off a play fake. Clemson's passing attack spreads the ball around and keeps the defense moving from side to side. Whitehurst's sterling execution of play fakes was a big positive late versus the Terps.
Defensively, the Tigers are giving up the big play and giving up yardage, but the victories over A&M and Maryland had one common thread. When Clemson needed a stop, it got a stop. The Tigers got three-and-outs against both A&M and Maryland to set up the winning drives. Against Maryland, the Tigers scored the winning touchdown, then gave up two first downs before shutting down the Terps to end the game.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was extremely critical of his unit after the A&M game. The Tigers allowed A&M to rush for 248 yards and Maryland to pass for 288 yards, but they still managed to pull out two victories. He blamed most of the problems on missed assignments and inexperience.
"We've all been to church, but when you go to church to get married, you get nervous," he said, referring to his unit's shaky performance in its first real action.
For Clemson's defense to be effective, the ends need to make plays. Charles Bennett and Gaines Adams played better against Maryland than they did against A&M, but Koenning wants more pressure and more big plays.
Clemson's defenders are flying around and trying to make things happen, yet they picked up only one stupid personal foul penalty in their first two games.
Punting Produces Pitiful Results
One area that really needs help is the punting game. The snaps have been awful, and when Cole Chason does manage to get the ball in his hands, his punts have been subpar.
Clemson fans had a nasty collective flashback after a bad snap in the second quarter of the Maryland game cost the Tigers seven points. It marked the second year in a row the Tigers botched a punt snap in the second game. Last year, a bad punt snap allowed Georgia Tech to escape Death Valley and effectively ruined Clemson's season.
After the bad snap against Maryland cost his team 37 yards and seven points, Bowden made a change. He removed long snapper Nic Riddle and replaced him with Colin Leonard. The next couple of snaps were high, but there were no more major gaffes.