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Blown Opportunity Another Big Setback

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

October 20, 2003 CLEMSON — It was a perfect setup. Coming off a 30-27 overtime victory over Virginia on Oct. 11, Clemson had momentum. N.C. State, having blown its lofty preseason expectations, was banged up and ripe for the taking. A victory in Raleigh would have set Clemson up for a run at the top of the ACC standings. A victory in Raleigh would have improved Clemson to 3-1 in the ACC, with struggling North Carolina and up-and-down Wake Forest coming up.

Then a big road block got in the way. The road block was the Tigers. In the immortal words of the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Or as your mother used to say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

The Tigers played aggressively against Virginia, and they played aggressively against N.C. State. The biggest difference was they played stupid football against the Wolfpack.

The end result was that Clemson went 1-2 in the toughest part of its schedule. Once again, the clock is ticking on Tommy Bowden's future.

The 17-15 loss to N.C. State dropped Clemson to 2-2 in the ACC and out of the league race for yet another year. Clemson has been a factor in the ACC race just once in the last decade. Some fans still think the Tigers are a factor on the national scene, but that is a small, small minority.

The Tigers committed seven 15-yard penalties against the Wolfpack. That's right. Seven. All of the flags were good calls. The killers were a pass interference violation against linebacker Eric Sampson, which essentially ended the game; a late hit called against tackle Trey Tate; and a roughing-the-quarterback penalty on tackle Donnell Washington. The flags against Tate and Washington helped keep State's winning drive alive.

The Bowden way is to play until the echo of the whistle stops, but the Tigers have been playing past that echo and getting themselves in trouble.

“We had intensity, but we also had some dumb, dumb penalties,” Clemson defensive coordinator John Lovett said after the State game. “That's what killed us tonight.”

Clemson committed five 15-yard penalties against Virginia. The first one was called before the opening kickoff, when the Tigers crossed the far-side hash mark while woofing at the Cavs.

The stupidity against State didn't just stop with the penalties. Cornerback Tye Hill stopped running when he saw a flag dropped. The result was N.C. State's second touchdown, as Hill could not catch up to wideout Richard Washington, who hauled in a 37-yard pass from Philip Rivers. That marked the second time this season Hill allowed a touchdown by slowing after seeing a penalty flag fly.

The return game was a mess against State. Twice in the second half, the Tigers brought two kickoffs out of the end zone and failed to reach the 20-yard line. On one punt return deep in Clemson territory, Derrick Hamilton tossed a lateral to Duane Coleman. The Hamilton lateral made no sense, and it didn't work.

Offensively, the Tigers were their standard selves against State. It took them three quarters to find something that worked, then they refused to use it once they found it. Chad Jasmin got the ground game started in the fourth quarter and scored on a five-yard run with 6:01 remaining. But after holding State to three plays and out, the Tigers got the ball back and threw three straight passes. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was sacked on second down, and his pass on third down was intercepted. Game over.

Clemson's offensive game plan was yet another clueless effort. Whitehurst, the No. 2 passer in the ACC, threw for just 196 yards against State, which had one of the worst pass defenses in the country going into the game and was missing starting cornerback Lamont Reid against the Tigers.

“The players played hard, but we've got to play smart and we've got to catch the ball,” said head coach Tommy Bowden, who counted four key drops against the Wolfpack.

Bowden put his spin machine in overdrive the day after the game. He claimed to see something after the game he had never seen before — an entire team upset about losing. Maybe this team finally is getting tired of losing.

Standouts: Kelly, Line, Hill, Fudge

Tailback Yusef Kelly gave the Tigers a lift against Virginia with 88 rushing yards, including a 12-yard blast to give Clemson a 24-17 lead late in the game. Kelly's big body and toughness can really help down the stretch.

Bowden continued to maintain after the Virginia game that Kelly had not been healthy, but Kelly told sportswriters after the game that he had been healthy for six and a half weeks. He did suffer a sprained ankle early in the State game and didn't return. If the Tigers are going to make a serious run at eight victories, they need Kelly in the backfield, but his status for the remainder of the season is questionable.

Clemson's running game also has benefited from the play of three young linemen: Roman Fry, Dustin Fry and Chip Myrick. When those three are in the game, the Tigers tend to be more effective on the ground.

The Tigers showed some backbone against Virginia. They gave away a 10-0 lead in the third quarter, then came from behind twice to win the game in overtime. The winning moment came on a play many Clemson fans have been screaming for all season, a fade route/jump ball to 6-5 Kevin Youngblood in the corner of the end zone.

Meanwhile, as the offense continued to piddle around and waste its talent at wide receiver, the defense started to develop an attitude.

A lot was written about the pre-game talk given by former defensive star Michael Dean Perry before the Virginia game. Perry's message was simple: Develop a swagger and hit the opposition in the mouth late in the game.

Virginia, the ACC leader in rushing entering the Clemson game at 184 yards per game, rushed for just 53 yards against the Tigers. State, averaging nearly 40 points per game, scored just 17 against Clemson. Linebacker Leroy Hill, who is having an All-ACC type year, has been a major surprise and is a serious candidate for ACC defensive player of the year. Rover Jamaal Fudge also has exceeded everyone's expectations.

Basketball: Purnell On Right Track?

Clemson basketball coaches always have used the school's location as a big reason the program has been the doormat of the ACC. But new head coach Oliver Purnell is out to change the thinking, both in and outside of Clemson. He believes the Tigers can win consistently in basketball.

“The image of Clemson is not the reality,” said Purnell, who came to Clemson after a successful stint at Dayton. “You always hear there's nothing to do here and that it's not a great place to live. We have to dispel that. It's the opposite. My wife and I are building a house in Clemson. We like it here.”

Purnell said he takes a great deal of pride in being the first African-American to be a head coach of a major program at Clemson.

“I look at the situation with pride, but I don't really feel any added responsibility,” he said. “You have to be yourself.”

Until practice started on Oct. 18, Purnell had been spending most of his time on the road recruiting. His efforts paid early dividends. Three top-100 prospects committed to the Tigers prior to the early signing period in November, and several others continue to give the program a serious look.

“You have to talk about your vision, and they have to buy into that,” Purnell said. “Recruiting is a 12-month, seven-day-a-week job. We're in catch-up mode.”

One reason Purnell is confident he will get the job done at Clemson is athletic director Terry Don Phillips.

“You can win here in basketball, it's just a matter of sustaining it,” Purnell said. “Terry Don Phillips has convinced me there is a commitment to basketball. A big part of what we're doing is changing the image to reality. The reality is that we're committed now to basketball.

“The thing that sold me the most on Clemson was Terry Don Phillips. He came from Oklahoma State, where Eddie Sutton has one of the premier programs in the country. He was at Arkansas, where Nolan Richardson won a national championship. He has been in places (similar to Clemson) where there has been a commitment to basketball. I liked him instantly. I have a great feeling about him and President (James) Barker.”