Last week we remembered the somber era that was Ken Hatfield's reign at Clemson. His final team managed to lose at home to a terrible WF team in front of the smallest crowd in Death Valley since the addition of the upper decks. You can find that here http://www.shakinthesouthland.com/2014/7/3/5858984/wtf-thursday-volume-1 for reference. Now we fast forward 11 seasons to the year 2004 when Clemson pulled off one of the most stunning lose-from-ahead choke jobs ever.
Setting the scene, if you read http://www.shakinthesouthland.com/2014/7/4/5861294/tgif-triumphs-volume-1, you know that 2003 had ended on a very high note. There was great hope that Clemson had finally turned a corner under Tommy Bowden and that the 2004 team could take the next step. Charlie Whitehurst was back for his junior year after breaking passing records in 2003, but the program still lacked quality depth and that became very evident as 2004 got going. Clemson had lost Kevin Youngblood, Tony Elliot, Chad Jasmin, and Derrick Hamilton (a lovely parting gift from Rick Stockstill, who played a role in Hamilton declaring early...a huge mistake) on offense, not to mention several OL. On defense, another poor early entry decision from Donnell Washington hindered the defense a bit, especially early in the season. Regardless, with Whitehurst, Airese Currie, a heralded move of Chansi Stuckey to WR, and Ben Hall and Bobby Williamson at TE, it was felt by many that the Tigers had plenty to make a push in 2004. Clemson had started the season by jumping all over Wake Forest early before Justin Miller made a crucial mistake on a desperation heave that allowed a long TD pass. What seemed like a fluke turned that game into a war that went into OT before the Tigers managed to pull it out. Considering what had happened at Wake the year before, most chalked that up to Grobe having Bowden's number and not a real indicator of the team's ability. After all, had it not been for that fluke bomb TD, Clemson would have blown that game totally open.
Next up was Georgia Tech whom the Tigers had dismantled in Atlanta the year before. Early in 2003, QB Reggie Ball had infamously declared the Jackets wouldn't lose again that year after battling FSU into the fourth quarter. However, the Tigers played perhaps their best game in Bobby Dodd in the last 15 years and crushed the Jackets. Surely they would be no match for Clemson in a packed Death Valley at night! SURELY! The Tiger defense played really well for the majority of this contest as the Tiger offense sputtered. John Lovett (who most likely lost his job on this night, though that didn't become official until 2004 ended) was sending a variety of blitzes at Reggie Ball who began to just chuck and duck on many of his throws. The defensive struggle began to shake loose in the mid third quarter with Clemson holding a 10-7 lead. The Tigers found a crack in John Tenuta's blitz happy defense and Reggie Merriweather burst through for a 62 yard TD run that had the Valley rocking. Clemson's defense, strong for the majority of the contest save one bomb to Calvin Johnson over double coverage, began to crack as they allowed GT to bust a big run with PJ Daniels that featured some terrible missed tackles that likely would have sealed it had they been made. GT found the endzone to tighten the score, but shortly afterwards, little used and diminutive Kyle Browning had his second biggest moment as a TIger (after scoring on the fumble-rooskie against Tennessee in the bowl game the year before) and took a draw play 54 yards to the house. Just about everyone in the building, including yours truly, felt it was game, set, match at that point with the Tigers up two TD's and just over 3 minutes remaining.
What transpired over the next 3 plus minutes nearly defies all laws of physics, religion, medical ethics, metallurgy, etc. Reggie Ball, who was, to me, just a shorter version of Willie Simmons in that he had a very strong arm but struggled to make accurate reads and throws from the pocket, had really looked afraid up to this point. With limited time remaining, you knew GT would have to throw. I'm not the biggest fan of bend but don't break approaches, but with a 2 TD lead, why not force Ball to read coverage and execute throws over the middle? He's a short quarterback, so push the pocket, get your hands up, and put a lot of stuff in his face to deal with...right? Instead, Lovett continued to load the box and step Tye Hill and Justin Miller up into press man coverage. Clemson played a ton of man-free, which with two future high round NFL corners you can understand, but GT had the freak we all know now as Megatron standing at 6'5" and weighing, even as a frosh, 225 plus with sprinter speed. Just at the Tarholes found out the hard way in 2000 against Simmons, if you walk everybody up and give a QB like Willie or Reggie Ball the fade check, you are making life easy. That's just what happened as Ball was able to take the snap and lob a fade route ball to Johnson. GT scored with 1:50 remaining, but when Clemson got the ball back, all the Tigers needed was one first down to end it.
First and ten, Whitehurst scrambles for a 9 yard gain and GT is forced to burn a timeout. Now things are academic as the Tigers have two plays to get one measly yard, right? Wrong! The Tigers had big back Yusef Kelly in the game who was attempting to fill the Chad Jasmin role from 2003, but both he and the OL failed miserably on second down to push the pile one yard. GT burns another timeout (which I think was their last one, though my memory is fuzzy on that one and shock was already starting to set in at the time I was watching this) and the Tigers line up for 3rd down. I was in the West Endzone for this game, so the action was coming right at me in the fourth quarter when Clemson had the ball. The third down run seemed like the game winner as Kelly clearly crossed the needed yard line, but the GT contingent to my left was cheering wildly as it soon became evident that Kelly didn't have the ball with him. The Tigers recovered the fumble, which in hindsight might have been a curse rather than a blessing since the field position was better than what GT ended up getting. Inexplicably, the Tigers had failed to net one yard on two runs and were now forced to punt with less than 30 seconds to go. As a side note, my Clemson friends and I had referred to the Bowden-era special teams as the "special Olympic teams" after seeing countless flubs in that department since his arrival. Extra points were no longer a sure thing, kick coverage was an adventure, and you couldn't even count on the punter catching a clean snap (see UGA game 2002). Now the Tigers needed a clean punt to hopefully end this now gut wrenching game.
Even the Tiger network guys usually need the media guide to name the long snapper. This is a position that lives in anonymity...unless he totally craps the bed. Such was the case when Geoff Rigby inexplicably got off probably the worst snap of his life. The ball looked like one of my drive attempts on the golf course when I pull my head up too quickly and top the hell out of the ball. Cole Chason had to feel like he was in some horror movie as that worm burner came bounding towards him. It actually took a favorable bounce that he might have secured, but it's hard to blame him for flubbing it like he did under those circumstances. He had no choice but to dive on the ball at the 10 yard line as the GT players celebrated this incredible good fortune.
Still, GT is out of timeouts and aren't at the one or two, they are at the 10. Running the ball in that situation is nearly out of the question because any failure to score or get out of bounds means game over. You would think a guy with the experience of John Lovett would understand such things. GT had one plan, get in a heavy run formation and try to isolate Johnson on one of the Tiger corners. Clemson obliged by walking Justin Miller up into press coverage, making this the easiest read in the history of football. Did we move a safety over the top to help? Hell no! Did we show press and then bail to better defend the fade (like GT famously did to Tajh Boyd in the 2011 game in Atlanta)? Hell no! Did we dare GT to actually run the ball against a softer box? Hell no! Did we let Reggie Ball take one step and lob it up to Megatron for a jump ball TD? Ding ding ding! I stood in shock along with 80K of my fellow Tiger fans while the nerds did their rambling wreck song and their bee shook his bee ass. A brief moment of hope came when Tye Hill blazed up the sideline with the kickoff return, but he was pushed out around the 30 and our last ditch effort to somehow put out that dumpster fire failed.
Most of us love night games in the valley, but the downside by far is the traffic afterwards. Sitting in traffic getting out of town after witnessing that debacle just allowed the anger to reach epic levels as the events of the evening replayed in my head. Hearing Bowden on the postgame do his usual equivocation and spin job only exacerbated the situation and I felt like this guy...
That game helped the Tigers go 1-4 to start the season. Bowden again went from the guy that was going to turn things around to the guy on the hotseat. His typical Houdini act to end the year, which featured an epic win at Miami, and another beating of the coots (the infamous brawl game), allowed us to hear the whole bowl eligible spiel again. Bowden shook things up at that point by canning Mike O'Cain (who had his own personal WTF moment in Durham that same year) and John Lovett at year's end. They became scapegoats for what were two of the biggest WTF moments in Tiger history, all in the same season. W-T-F!