These haven't gotten completely favorable reviews, but, as I predicted, these moments have generated more reaction than talking about wins. I guess that's why they call it trauma!
This week we operate in familiar territory...the Bowden regime. This particular game epitomizes his tenure of "almost" and "one play away." It seemed the football gods had smiled on ole Tommy heading into the epic 2007 showdown with Matt Ryan and the BC Eagles. Despite the '07 team once again not being able to get out of its own way in Atlanta against GT earlier in the year and playing some of the worst special teams in division one against Virginia Tech, the Tigers made it to this November matchup needing just one win to clinch a birth in the ACC Championship Game and "get over the hump."
The 2007 team, in hindsight, was perhaps the best and most talented team of the Bowden era. Even though there was turnover at QB and and some of the OL positions, coupled with the absolute flame-out of the 2006 team, this team featured a nice balance of offense and defense. Many, including yours truly, were very worried about Cullen Harper taking over at QB. This had everything to do with the fact that he never got a chance when Will Proctor was exposed and struggled mightily at QB down the stretch in 2006. My thought was, "Well, if he couldn't beat out Proctor, how good could he be?" But, Harper made great strides in the off-season once he got legitimate reps with the one's, something Rob Spence famously didn't do much of at all with his backups in season. Harper had beaten out Byrnes High legend Willy Korn, who was the savior du jour, and looked poised facing Florida State in the first game of the year. Outside of a pathetic showing in Atlanta, where nobody on offense played well, Harper was getting the job done. The VT game was not on him (outside of one poor throw that was taken back for 6), as the special teams played horribly and VT crawled the Tiger offense early. Harper nearly brought the Tigers back with Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham catching double digit balls each. VT was still in their peak form and just better than Clemson at that point. Clemson rebounded from that loss with four straight blowout wins, including the previous game against Bowden's nemesis Jim Grobe and the Wake Forest Deacs (when they were still a pretty decent team). BC was in control of the division, but had lost to FSU and Maryland back-to-back weeks after reaching #2 in the nation. ESPN pegged this showdown with BC for prime-time and all of Tiger Nation prepared for the ascension to the top of the Atlantic Division.
My group set up our tailgate before sunrise that day. It was so early that when Tommy Bowden drove past us on his way to his office that morning, he stopped, rolled down his window, and said, "You boys know we don't play 'till 8:00 tonight right?" We responded in force that we were ready right now. Needless to say, it was an epic tailgate. The weather was perfect for an all day bender. The energy of the town kept climbing as kickoff drew closer. There was no way BC was going to win this game...NO FREAKING WAY! Clemson was sporting one of the best secondaries in college football with a two deep that featured Crezdon Butler, Chris Chancellor, Byron Maxwell, Marcus Gilchrist, Chris Clemons, and Michael Hamlin. All but Chancellor became NFL draft picks and it was Chancellor's small size that prevented him from doing the same. Matt Ryan was a great player and had already ripped our hearts out the previous two seasons, but NOT THIS TIME!
The Tigers drew first blood when James Davis finished off a drive from one yard out. BC scratched out a field goal but otherwise couldn't crack the Tiger defense. Both defenses were in control of the game, as the potent Tiger skill players couldn't get loose because BC's powerful front seven was giving the Tiger OL fits (that should spark a comment or two...). On a humorous note, when you look at the Wikipedia page for the '07 Tigers, the offense is described as "bubble screen." We all know too well the "horizontal passing game" that defined the Rob Spence era. BC, like VT and GT earlier, was able to make sure tackles and keep these plays from hurting much. Meanwhile, the running game was non existent, even with James Davis and C.J. Spiller at our disposal. The Tigers put together one decent drive in the third quarter to take a 10-3 lead heading to the fourth. We were one quarter from the championship game and a chance to be really relevant for the first time since 1991.
This is the part where I get to talk about Vic Koenning. It is going to be very interesting this fall when we face him and the Tarholes. For the most part, the Koenning era seemed a success. Clemson's total defense rankings climbed from every season. However, the mark of the Vic Koenning defenses at Clemson mirrored that of Tommy Bowden's program; they couldn't finish the job. For all who piled on Will Proctor (and I was one of them) for what happened in 2006, we should remember that Clemson had fourth quarter leads against BC, Maryland, and the coots, even with Proctor's problems throwing down field, and blew every one of those leads late. Heck, Clemson was a yard away from blowing it against NCST as well when the would-be-winning-catch was ruled incomplete. Now, in 2007, the Tiger defense had a chance to win the day. The Tiger secondary had been rock solid, but BC found a match-up it could win with running back Andre Callender. The Tiger linebackers struggled to cover Callender out of the backfield and BC began to dink and dunk down the field with dump-offs--many of which came on critical third downs. Koenning did not like to blitz and played Hamlin and Clemons back deep with a lot of match-up zone underneath. Ryan converted third down after third down and BC reeled off 10 straight points to take a 13-10 lead. The Death Valley crowd went from raucous to chewing nails. Then, Clemson's offense finally put together a few first downs behind some gutsy play from Cullen Harper. Then came the play that probably changed Harper's career forever...
Harper rolled out on a play-action pass but soon saw a lane and took off for the endzone with BC's secondary quickly closing in. Harper threw caution to the wind and dove headlong to the endzone, sustaining a critical shoulder injury that even surgery after the season never seemed to totally fix. Regardless, Harper's heroics had the Valley rocking and it appeared the Tigers had finally performed in the clutch against a big team in a big moment. All Clemson needed now was one more stop on defense.
Back came Ryan and the Eagle offense with more dumps to Callender, who would finish with an astounding 11 grabs. As the Eagles neared midfield, the defense seemed to finally bow up, forcing BC into third and long. Now Ryan would be forced to look downfield. The Tiger defense had produced 5 sacks already. So, surely Sapp or Jenkins or Scott or Alexander or Merling would come up with the pressure we needed. Ryan dropped back for the 54th time in the game and prepared for his 47th attempt. Clemson appeared to be in 2 deep/man under coverage and did a good job covering the initial reads. By the way the front seven reacted at the snap, we seemed to be especially focused on taking away the screen pass. I was sitting in the West Stands with the action coming right at me. Clemson only brought three on the rush, but the nose guard (maybe Jenkins?) applied pressure up the middle that flushed Ryan to his right. As two Tigers closed in on Ryan, he turned and uncorked a pass across the field that initially appeared to be a desperation jump ball. In what seemed like a slow motion death scene in a movie, I came to the horrifying realization that BC had a man all alone behind our defense. Crezdon Butler was in pursuit but three yards behind Rich Gunnell by the time the ball arrived. Somehow, someway, inexplicably, Chris Clemons, who has had the best NFL career to date of those drafted secondary players mentioned earlier, rotated out of his zone when Ryan scrambled. While Butler looked like the culprit initially, we soon learned that Clemons should have been on top of that route, had he kept his assignment, and Butler had the underneath responsibility. The only solace in this mind numbing mistake by the defense was that there was still enough time to mount a drive.
If you google search this play, one of the hits that comes up is "Most Hated Plays in Clemson History." Much like how the epic efforts of Charlie Whitehurst were lost in the one pass he didn't make against Miami in 2005, perhaps the best throw in Cullen Harper's career was lost when normally sure handed Aaron Kelly dropped the would be game winner. I'd seen Kelly make some ridiculous catches, including one against VT when he got crushed and flipped by two VT players. We remember the TD catch against FSU in 2005 when review confirmed he had made the grab in bounds. Harper, despite playing with a serious shoulder injury sustained on his TD run, uncorked a perfect bomb into the waiting hands of Kelly who had a half step advantage on the defense. But all too typically the ball fell to the turf and a desperation FG attempt came up short. The defense had failed and the offense failed to bail them out. Despite having all the momentum coming in, and the home field, Bowden's crew just couldn't finish the job. I and the rest of the 82,000 plus were left with the what if's and the W-T-F. A gut punch to the Bowden program that would finally suffer the TKO in Winston-Salem the following season.