We had WTF Thursday to wallow in some past misery, but you have to get the weekend started right with a flashback to a great and happy time in Tiger football. This series is intended to help bridge the gap we know as "The Dark Territory" when Clemson athletics are on hiatus. Since we focused on the collapse against GT in 04 yesterday, it is only fitting to recall a time when we ripped the hearts out of the nerds. This game also produced perhaps my favorite play by play soundbite of a Clemson moment EVER. The year was 2001, and the Tigers took out a top 10 GT team in Atlanta in O.T.
2001 was similar in many ways to 2004 in that the previous year's team had shown a lot of promise and the expectations were high. Just like 2004, the lack of overall depth in the program betrayed us once again even though we had the dynamic Woody Dantzler back at QB, along with Travis Zachary, and the entire offensive line from the previous season. Tiger fans were also giddy over the recruiting haul that featured 5 star Roscoe Crosby along with Airese Currie and Ben Hall. I went to the only fan appreciation day in my life that year to get autographs of guys I was sure were going to be legends. Guys like Tye Hill and Charlie Whitehurst were near afterthoughts that day in Littlejohn (where they held it that year). I ran into then defensive coordinator Reggie Herring and probed him a bit about the defense. His response was, "We'll be as fast as we've been, we just have to stay healthy." He had raved about linebacker Altroy Bodrick and even compared him to the immortal Anthony Simmons in the preseason, but unfortunately we never got to see Bodrick that year due to a torn ACL. Bodrick returned in 2002 but was never the type of force one would have expected with such comparisons. Additionally, Keith Adams, the Termite, had departed early to the NFL and top returning corner Alex Ardley was sent packing after having it out with Bowden and staff at the Gator Bowl. These types of losses, we all would find out the hard way, just couldn't be absorbed. Still, season tickets sold at a record rate and the team squeaked out a win against Central Florida to start off the year, then woke up after a slow start to beat Wofford. The next week, Clemson managed to lose at home against UVA and that really started to get folks thinking this might not be what we were expecting.
Meanwhile, GT had run with the momentum built up from a very good 1999 season and the emergence of effing George Godsey (whom we made look like Joe Montana in Death Valley in 2000), Kerry Watkins, and Kelly Campbell running a version of the Ralph Friedgen offense (who just began his head coaching stint at Maryland) had them riding high. GT was 9th and things were looking bleak for the Tigers going in because of even more injuries. In addition to losing Bodrick in preseason, the Tigers lost emerging go-to WR Kevin Youngblood to a terrible leg injury before the season as well. Roscoe Crosby was banged up and not available vs. GT. Guys like Airese Currie, Travis Pugh, and Jamal Fudge were playing before they really were ready to play. We had a lot of guys playing on the team at that point who would have never seen the field for the 2014 Tigers. Ryan Hemby, Kevin Johnson, Toure Francis (who was probably the best of the bunch) and the like were manning our secondary positions. Despite this, Herring never wavered from his attacking style and left those guys in man coverage with little help most of the time. This was partly due to the weakness up front on the DL, which required us to sell out to stop the run. Regardless, none of this bode well against a team returning the majority of an offense that ran roughshod over a much better 2000 defense the year before. I, like many others, watched and waited for the wheels to come off.
The defense hung in there early on, but then GT seemed to move the ball at will and scored easily. It was very evident that Woody and the Tiger offense, which hadn't really looked all that dynamic up to this point in 2001, would have to win the day. The Tigers put together one good drive in the first quarter to take a brief lead in the first half. Then, when it looked like GT would go into the half up by 13, Woody ripped off an incredible run off a scramble to score just before the half and gave the Tigers life. The second half would be one of the most entertaining back and forth affairs I've ever seen.
The Tigers got the ball to start the second half and managed to hit a bomb to reserve-turned-starter-thanks-to-injury Matt Bailey, who looked like he was maybe a 4.8 40 guy but the GT corner fell down and he was able to rumble to the endzone, and took a 21-20 lead. As noted, it didn't take the GT staff long to expose the Tiger defense, so the Jackets promptly answered to regain the lead. Back and forth it would go, with Woody Dantzler ripping apart the GT defense with an array of QB draws, counters, and powers as well as scrambles. Derrick Hamilton had begun to emerge in his redshirt freshman year as a dynamic player. Travis Zachary played like a man possessed and was cleaning guys out as a lead blocker on many of those runs. His jersey was literally ripped and hanging off by the fourth quarter. Still, no matter what Woody and the offense was able to do, the GT offense answered and appeared to have the game won as the Tigers were facing a fourth and long with just over 2 minutes to go. I had already begun running the "what-if's" through my mind and continued my cursing of the defense that had been steady that day when Woody took the shotgun snap...
Still, even after this miracle play and the epic call from Sean McDonough, the Tigers were not out of the woods. The potent GT offense once again drove the ball down the field as the Tiger faithful held its breath. I was in the Valley just the year before when Clemson had appeared to have stolen victory only to have the defense fold like a deck of cards to lose it. The replay appeared to be occurring right in front of our eyes and GT drove inside the 25 yard line. Facing 3rd and 1, the Tiger defense threw the kitchen sink at the line of scrimmage (thank GOD GT didn't run play action here) and stopped Joe Burns from getting the first. GT had mere inches to get a first down, but thankfully O'Leary elected to kick a FG and send the game to OT.
GT took the ball first in OT and again looked poised to score a TD, but again failed in short yardage and again elected to kick a FG. Now the Tigers had a chance to win the game without putting that defense back on the field. GT forced us to third down but hero of the day J.J. McKelvey made a great catch on a short out route to save the drive. After that, Woody, led by Travis Zachary, again gutted GT's defense up the middle on a run to seal the deal. It set off a huge celebration by the Tiger faithful in Atlanta as well as the thousands who watched on TV. It also set off the most incredible 2 game stretch by any one Tiger I have ever seen as Woody topped this unreal performance with his epic 500+ total yards at NCST the next week. Unfortunately things caught up with that limited 2001 squad, but few will doubt the glory that was the 47-44 OT win over GT in Atlanta.