October 11, 2005
CLEMSON - This is what Clemson football has been reduced to under coach Tommy Bowden: running a fake field goal on fourth-and-seven in an attempt to hold on for a close victory over Wake Forest.
Now all Clemson fans can do is wonder if Bowden can pull off yet another miraculous late-season rally. In his seventh season, it seems that Bowden has to get himself into a big mess before he remembers how to coach and how to motivate. He has been down this road too many times before.
The inexplicable fake field goal call against the Demon Deacons failed miserably. Then Wake raced downfield to score the winning touchdown, and Bowden's seat suddenly grew warmer again.
This coach just can't seem to stay out of his own way sometimes. He gets something going and then blows it. After watching one play work all day, Bowden might call a triple reverse pass to his quarterback. Most Clemson fans view that as stupidity, not imagination.
The constant rise and fall of Bowden has led to constant mediocrity in Clemson. Why not take the points? Jad Dean was in a groove. Let him kick a field goal to give you a six-point lead, and then kick the ball to Greensboro to put Wake on its own 20-yard line, knowing it has to score a touchdown to win.
Instead, the shift in pressure was dramatic. Taking possession after the fake field goal failed, the Deacons knew all they needed was a field goal to tie. The winning TD was a pleasant bonus.
Of course, Bowden didn't take the points. Instead, he ordered a pitch to Dean, who was thrown for a seven-yard loss. Thankfully, Dean didn't get hurt. That would've been a real kicker, pardon the pun.
After the play, long-time Clemson observers wracked their brains, trying to remember a worse call at a key moment in school history. At last check, they were still searching.
To make things even more maddening for Clemson fans, the desperate Tigers raced down the field in the final 30 seconds. On the final play of the game, wide receiver Curtis Baham was tackled - three yards short of the winning touchdown.
After the game, Bowden could do nothing but make excuses. He said holder Cole Chason had the option to call off the play and should have called it off. Why put a holder in that situation? Call it off from the sideline.
In addition to saying that the play should have been called off, Bowden said the three points would not have mattered because Wake scored a touchdown anyway. The guess here is that Bowden has a really good crystal ball to make that assumption. At the very least, the coach's view said terrible things about his opinion of his own defense.
"If I had known we were not going to call it off, I probably would have kicked the field goal and lost by one and felt worse," Bowden said during a Monday morning press conference after the game.
The best quote after the game came from Wake coach Jim Grobe, who called the fake field goal a "great call" (with a straight face) because he and his team were not expecting it. Ah, so that's why Grobe is famous for his super-smooth ways with the media. He never leaves anyone - even opposing coaches - hung out to dry.
The loss was Bowden's second to Wake in the last three years. Now only two Clemson football coaches have lost to the Deacons two times in a three-year span. The other was Ken Hatfield, and we all know what happened to him.
BOWDEN SOLID DESPITE ANGRY FANS
Of course, the Clemson message boards were on fire after the Wake game. There were two hot topics - the fake field goal call and Bowden's head.
Bowden's seat may be warming, but he's not going anywhere this year. There's just too much money involved, money Clemson doesn't have at the moment. The buyout in December would be $3 million.
But Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said that buyout number doesn't really mean anything, because Bowden isn't in any danger anyway. After two national columnists wrote last summer that his coach was on the hot seat, Phillips released a statement endorsing Bowden. When asked about the endorsement after the shocking loss to Wake, Phillips said he stood by his statement.
The question everyone in orange wants answered is this: Will Bowden ever have a break-out season? No one predicted a break-out season this year, mostly because of the difficult September portion of the schedule. But after a 2-0 start, hopes were raised. Then the Tigers slipped back to .500 with overtime losses to Miami and Boston College.
But was September really that difficult? Miami and BC have proven to be pretty good, but Texas A&M, a big loser to Colorado, and Maryland have not been world-beaters.
Since beating Tennessee in the Peach Bowl to finish the remarkable run at the end of the 2003 season that saved his job, Bowden is 8-8 overall.
Expectations have been out of whack at Clemson since the Tigers won the 1981 national championship. The annual high expectations need to be put away until the Tigers prove they can be a factor in the ACC again. In the last 10 years, they haven't been a factor in the ACC race. This has the look of a mediocre football program.
Bowden keeps saying that his program is close and that brighter days are ahead. Some fans still believe him. Others see a snake-oil salesman.
"It's like I told the team: We need a big catch and run or to break a big run," Bowden said after the Wake game. "It's going to come."
The problem is that Clemson's fan base is emotionally exhausted and tired of waiting for something good to happen. Football is important to Clemson people, and they recognize an inferior product when they see it. A majority of the fan base is tired of hoping for a late-season run, just so the Tigers can play a bowl game on blue turf.
DEFENSE, PUNTING KILLING HOPES
The defense isn't resting at Clemson, in part because it's spending too much time on the field.
The Tigers can't stop anybody. One week, it's the run. The next week, it's the pass. The Clemson defense made both Matt Ryan of Boston College (backup) and Cory Randolph of Wake Forest (first 2005 start) look like All-ACC material.
Here's a little secret. Outside of Tye Hill, the Tigers don't have any cornerbacks. And whoever is playing cornerback is lost in coordinator Vic Koenning's zone coverage scheme. The Tigers blew two coverages against Wake, and the Deacons made them pay for both mistakes. Koenning said the coverages that were blown were put in last spring. Obviously, there is a failure to communicate.
Offensive coordinator Rob Spence came under some heat after the Boston College game for being too conservative. In several articles the week before the Wake game, Spence said his offense was not conservative and that line of thinking was "hilarious."
Clemson fans didn't think it was too funny. The team's offense moves the ball at times, but the Tigers take few risks with the ball when they have it.
There were high hopes for senior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, but Whitehurst isn't going to have the type of season many fans had hoped for because the coaching staff isn't letting him throw the ball downfield.
Meanwhile, Chason continues to struggle at punter. Apparently, Bowden doesn't have any other options. After the Wake game, Chason's net average was under 30 yards per game.
At 2-3, there was a lot of talk in the Clemson camp about focus and continuing to play hard. But one wonders if the players believe that a miraculous run can happen again. After the Thursday night trip to Raleigh (Clemson never has won a Thursday night game), the Tigers will have a chance to build some momentum - Temple, at Georgia Tech, Duke - before Florida State comes to town on Nov. 12.