November 8, 2006
CLEMSON - The rollercoaster ride is back.
Before the past two seasons, Tigers coach Tommy Bowden had lamented his teams' habit of matching huge victories with almost inexplicable defeats. From 2003-05, Clemson had beaten Florida State twice but also lost to Wake Forest twice. The Tigers went to Miami and won late in 2004, only to fall at Duke a week later.
"You'd like the consistency," Bowden said this summer, as he prepared for his eighth season. "We haven't been able to do it. I haven't been able to do it, whoever. It's been a rollercoaster ride, up and down."
The sharp twists and turns have returned to Clemson's program, and that's not a good thing. After the team's recent 13-12 loss to 20-point underdog Maryland, sealed on a 31-yard field goal by Dan Ennis as time expired, everyone inside and outside the program was trying to grasp how a team that looked so good two weeks before was now teetering on the brink of implosion.
Nine days after Clemson went to Virginia Tech ranked No. 10 and sporting the distinction as one of the best one-loss teams in college football, the Tigers (7-3, 4-3) were looking at the final two games of the regular season (N.C. State and South Carolina) and genuinely wondering whether they'd be able to win again.
Two weeks after Clemson showcased itself to the nation in a 31-7 bashing of then-No. 13 Georgia Tech, totaling 321 rushing yards, the Tigers went seven quarters and 22 possessions without scoring a touchdown. And their quarterback is stuck in a mental funk that evokes comparisons to golfers Ian Baker Finch and David Duval.
"Your leadership will be challenged a little bit, and your coaches will be challenged a bit," Bowden said after his team dropped its second consecutive game. "We're going to have to tighten the circle."
Bowden has some serious morale issues to address as his team questions itself and its plan. There is plenty of second-guessing going on, most of it spawned by an offense that was exposed in the past two games.
Senior center Dustin Fry summed it up best after the Maryland defeat, a loss that saw the Tigers fail to reach the end zone on four trips to the red zone.
"I guess the book is out on how to stop our offense," Fry said.
This piece of literature is fast becoming a best seller. It hit the shelves on Oct. 26 in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster loaded up the box to stop the run and put the game on the shoulders of quarterback Will Proctor.
The plan worked beautifully, as Proctor came unglued in the big-game setting. The fifth-year senior looked awful, overthrowing his receivers and failing to execute the simplest of throws as the Hokies hung a 24-7 reality check on the Tigers.
Maryland didn't completely sell out against the run, but the Terrapins didn't seem too concerned about Proctor. And in the game's defining moment, Bowden made the most telling statement of all when he opted against giving Proctor a shot to win it.
With less than three minutes left and Maryland up 10-9, Clemson faced a third-and-goal from the eight-yard line. Bowden didn't have enough confidence to throw it. He ordered offensive coordinator Rob Spence to call a running play, which picked up three yards to set up a field goal that put the Tigers up 12-10.
A pooch kick helped Maryland set up at its own 34. The Terrapins moved 52 yards on 11 plays to get in field goal range, and Bowden's decision to settle for the field goal ended up being questioned by people outside and inside the team.
"I was totally shocked by that call," sophomore tailback James Davis said.
Bowden was concerned that Proctor might throw an interception, and it was tough to argue with those reservations. That's because Proctor, who coaches and teammates thought would be a sure thing in his first year as a starter, is crumbling under the pressure.
His numbers against Maryland (18-of-27, 251 yards) were extremely deceptive. Three of those completions totaled 159 yards and were to wide-open receivers. Take away those passes, and Proctor had 15 completions for 92 yards - a 6.1-yard average that perfectly illustrates the offense's almost exclusive reliance on screen passes.
Proctor's current meltdown wasn't exactly predictable, but there was some foreshadowing earlier this season. He looked shaky in the opener against Florida Atlantic, and he missed some big throws despite putting up big numbers in a double-overtime loss at Boston College.
Proctor had his best game in a 27-20 triumph at Florida State, but it's been mostly downhill from there. Clemson won in spite of him at Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, and then the warts were there for all to see against Virginia Tech and Maryland.
Coming into this season, many insiders thought Proctor actually would be an upgrade over Charlie Whitehurst. That notion seems ridiculous now, as Proctor has deteriorated into a frazzled shell of the quarterback who inspired so much confidence during the spring and summer.
Bowden has been reluctant to criticize his quarterback, and that's probably a good indication that he has no one else to turn to. Backups Cullen Harper and Tribble Reese, both redshirt sophomores, aren't even close to being ready to take meaningful snaps. And that's a sobering realization for a team that knows its fortunes probably rest on the shaky right arm of Proctor.
The rollercoaster is back at Clemson, and the ride ain't exactly enjoyable.
BASKETBALL: BOOKER READY ALREADY
It doesn't take an astute basketball mind to see that freshman Trevor Booker is going to make an immediate impact for Clemson's basketball team.
Booker, a 6-7, 215-pound power forward who earned player of the year honors in South Carolina last year as a senior at Union High, is already one of Clemson's best players.
He showed that in an intrasquad scrimmage and an exhibition victory over Lithuania Academy. Booker is an aggressive rebounder and can run the floor. In other words, he's a perfect fit for coach Oliver Purnell's system.
The team from Lithuania was vastly overmatched, but Booker gave fans a pretty good preview of the future with six points, seven rebounds, three blocks, three steals and three assists. He's clearly one of the two or three most complete players on the team, and he's already starting ahead of sophomores Julius Powell and Raymond Sykes.
"He probably played more like a veteran, and that's the way he's been playing," Purnell said. "He's proven to us that he can rebound at this level. We've got to make him a better defender, but he can do it. He can block shots, he's quick enough. And he has to, because he's the smallest post guy. So he's got to do all those little things defensively to make us good."