September 27, 2005
CLEMSON -- When the season started, most Clemson fans looked at the September portion of the schedule and said something like this: "If we can get through the first four games at least 2-2, I will be happy."
Well, the team got through the first four games 2-2, but few people in Tiger Nation were happy. Clemson has been living on the edge. The first four games were decided in the closing minutes of regulation or overtime. The Tigers were 2-2, but they could have been 4-0. Of course, they also could have been 0-4.
"We're two plays away from being 4-0," coach Tommy Bowden said. "That's the way I have to look at it."
The 36-30 triple-overtime loss to Miami on Sept. 17 was an instant classic. The Hurricanes simply made more plays and escaped Death Valley. The 16-13 loss to Boston College on Sept. 24 was a different story. The Eagles ran 33 more plays, had more yards, dominated time of possession, and were 10-for-20 on third down. Somehow, the Tigers, who were 0-for-11 on third down, managed to send the game into overtime.
What made the losses to Miami and BC even more difficult was the fact that the Tigers wasted a true home-field advantage. The Clemson fans showed up, wore orange and were loud at all of the appropriate times. Several Miami players said Death Valley was the loudest place they had ever experienced.
After the loss to the Eagles, most fans were blaming new offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who for some reason decided to slug it out on the ground against a much larger and more physical team. While the fans were blaming the loss on the conservative play-calling, Spence blamed it on a lack of execution.
Even though there was a growing sense of desperation leading up to early October trips to Wake Forest and N.C. State, two difficult places for Clemson to win, Bowden wasn't ready to reach for the panic button.
"I don't want us to get out of kilter," Bowden said. "We played two overtime games against two good opponents. We're not going to make wholesale changes. We've had the toughest opening schedule in Clemson history, and we're 2-2. We need to refine things, then go get our third win. Then we need to go get our fourth win."
After four games, there were two things you couldn't question about the Tigers -- their effort and their desire. This team seems to have intangibles that some of Bowden's other teams either didn't have or were unable to exhibit. In the first four games, the Tigers came from behind in all four to either tie the game or take the lead.
On the other hand, several things could be questioned.
The offense seemed to be making progress until the Boston College game, when the Tigers went into a shell. After the game, Bowden was questioned several times about his offense getting conservative. Of course, the coach disagreed. But facing a second-and-10 play at their own 31 late in regulation, the Tigers ran it twice instead of trying to throw the ball down the field.
The Tigers had the home crowd and the wind, and they didn't even attempt to get into a position to win the game. BC got the ball with 22 seconds remaining and immediately hit a 29-yard pass. Has Bowden already put the handcuffs on Spence, or was Miami's speed and BC's size just too much for the Tigers' new and still-developing offensive scheme?
To nobody's surprise, there already are whispers that Spence is in over his head, especially in the defense-heavy ACC, but it's still too early to draw such conclusions.
It looks as if the handcuffs have been put on senior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. There are few deep passes or throws between the hashmarks being called from the sideline. The passing game has been extremely low-risk. The Tigers love the wide receiver screen and the Utah pass, two plays that aren't working and sometimes aren't worth the risk.
Whitehurst was criticized by some people for his play against Miami. Some said he choked, but the general feeling was that he just wasn't sharp. He missed a wide-open Chansi Stuckey in the end zone late in regulation for what would have been the winning touchdown, and he made a bad decision on the pass that was intercepted to end the game. The highlight against the Hurricanes for Whitehurst was a shocking, career-long 65-yard run.
Defensively, the Tigers put together a courageous effort against Boston College, but it wasn't enough. Before the Miami game, Bowden talked about how he wanted the defense to be more physical and to create more collisions. New coordinator Vic Koenning has spent a lot of time bemoaning the fact that his playmakers aren't making plays.
The Tigers are soft up the middle and in the defensive backfield. The zone approach in the secondary is giving up big completion after big completion. The Tigers also have been missing several tackles a game. When you're playing close games, one missed tackle in the wrong place can beat you.
Punting Continues Big Problems
Clemson lost the field-position battle to Miami. In their first eight drives, the Tigers' average starting position was their own 18-yard line.
A big reason for the poor field position was the ineffective punting of Cole Chason. Clemson and Miami both punted seven times, but the Hurricanes' total punt yardage was almost 80 yards more than that of the Tigers.
The punting got so bad that assistant coach Jack Hines held a meeting on the Sunday after the Miami game. All of the punters were on hand, and so was former Clemson punter Chris McInally, who is involved with several summer kicking camps. The meeting involved mostly film study and talk about technique.
Chason averaged 36.8 yards per punt against Miami and 38.3 against BC. It was a small improvement, but still not enough to keep the Tigers from losing yardage every time they were forced to punt. Miami and BC both averaged better than 42 yards per kick.
Chason needs to get better in a hurry, or Bowden needs to try somebody else. Giving up 10 yards per punt, which the Tigers did in the Miami game, also will get you beat.
Bad Reporting On Downer Injury
Tight end Cole Downer suffered a bad break late in the Miami game. He landed on the football while being tackled, rupturing his spleen. Quick action by the Clemson medical staff on hand for the game may have saved his life. Approximately one hour after the final play, Downer had surgery to remove his spleen.
A senior from Chantilly, Va., Downer was starting to become a major weapon in Spence's multi-formation offense. Clemson is going to apply for a medical redshirt for Downer, even though the possibility of him stepping onto the field again is remote.
Meanwhile, in yet another display of how hyperactive and irresponsible some independent college-sports websites have become, one Clemson-related site reported that Downer had to be rushed back into surgery late last week because of internal bleeding. It was not true. Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret notified all media outlets that Downer was resting in his room at the time he reportedly was in the follow-up surgery.