With Columbus Day very close on the horizon, Clemson will welcome an "explorer" of its own to town this weekend, as the well-traveled Bobby Petrino brings his Louisville Cardinals to Tigertown for the first ever meeting between the two football programs. The Tigers and Cardinals may not have much of a history on the gridiron, but the Cardinals head man has a long enough history off the field to fill volumes. Petrino-the-Prodigal-Son departed Louisville for the greener pastures (so he thought) of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons in 2007, but left the dirty birds in the lurch just one year later (no volleyball team) to take the head job for the Arkansas Razorbacks of the mighty Southeastern Conference. He apparently grew bored with swine herding in Little Rock and
wrecked his motorcycle got reckless, costing him his job. But Petrino-the-Prodigal-Son had learned his lesson. He was a changed man (or so he claimed). Thus "redeemed," he returned "home" to Louisville, Kentucky, where the Cardinal faithful welcomed him back with open arms. The Prodigal Son had returned! And now he and his Cardinals have taken flight, soaring to a 5-1 early-season record as they descend upon Death Valley, South Carolina to try and tame the Tigers. Luckily, that task should prove arduous enough that little Bobby Petrino won't have time to get his hand caught in the cookie jar yet again.
As the Tigers and Cards have no history on the field, we might have examined Clemson's record against Petrino's other schools, but alas, the Tigers have never played Arkansas, Western Kentucky, or the Atlanta Falcons. We might have looked back at how the Tigers have fared against Louisville's fellow conference foes, but the Big East is now defunct (with the cream of its crop now in the ACC Coastal), and Conference USA should be renamed Conference Ukraine its schools are so weak and remote.
So since birds of a feather allegedly flock together, we're forced to go bird watching this week with a glimpse back at three historical Tiger triumphs over some similarly flighty foes to those Coach Petrino will release to the wilds of Death Valley this weekend. We'll restrict our gaze by ignoring regular conference foes (Virginia Tech and Boston College) and the various dirt-pecking fowl we frequently encounter (South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Coastal Carolina). Instead we'll seek out those rare birds that come along only for a moment (3.5 hours typically) and just as quickly fly away seldom to been seen or heard from again.
The Ball State Cardinals share a mascot and a similar mid-major conference to Louisville's former C-USA home, the Mid-American Conference (MAC), and they last flew into Death Valley in 2012 to be plucked 52-27. The Cardinals brought a very capable squad down to the Upstate that year, coming in at just 1-1 but touting a solid running game led by RB Horactio Banks and effective passing attack under QB Keith Wenning! Dabo's Tigers, however, were just too much for the Cards. Tajh Boyd went 19/223 for 229yds and 3 tds through the air, six of those completions and 105yds to WR Deandre "Nuk" Hopkins, and all without star sophomore phenom WR Sammy Watkins, who had been suspended for the first two games of the year. RBs Andre Ellington and Rod McDowell combined for 100yds and three scores as the Tigers racked up 526yds of total offense in the rout. The defense, led by held the Cardinals to 380yds, but 252 of them came on the ground, including two long runs (54yds and 21yds) by Banks. But Wenning threw two interceptions, both of which led to Tiger scores, and Clemson cruised to an easy early-season triumph. Ball State would go on to a respectable 9-4 (6-2 MAC) record and earn a Beef O'Brady's Bowl bid, which they lost 38-17 to UCF to finish unranked nationally. The Tigers finished the year at 11-2 (7-1 ACC), Atlantic Division Co-Champions, and won the Peach Bowl over LSU in thrilling fashion to end the season at #11 in the polls.
Highlights of Clemson vs. Ball State 2012
The Temple Owls are currently keeping a seat warm in the American Athletic Conference, the successor to Louisville's former Big East Conference, and they last tangled with the Tigers in Charlotte in 2006, falling 63-9. The Owls came into the neutral-site matchup with the Tigers completely overmatched, having lost eighteen straight contests, while Tommy Bowden's eighth Clemson team was riding high at 6-1 and #12 in the country. And this one was just what the doctor ordered as a potential ESPN Gameday showdown in Death Valley loomed the following week. The Tigers jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, and tacked on 28 more in the second to put the game on ice well before halftime. They were led by workhorse RB James "Thunder" Davis, who toted the rock just nine times for 138yds and 3 scores. Fellow backfield mate CJ "Lightening" Spiller added 73yds on the ground and two more tds, while QB Will Proctor added 150yds through the air and another two scores to pace the offense en route to 559 total yds from scrimmage. Defensively the Tigers dominated the hapless Owls, holding them to 221 yards (one fewer than Clemson had just passing), and All-American defensive end Gaines Adams recorded a sack, his fifth straight game to do so, which tired a school record. Temple finished the year at 1-11 and unranked. Clemson went on to a disappointing 8-5 (5-3 ACC) record, unranked after losing to Kentucky in a lethargic Music City Bowl to finish the season.
Highlights of the 2006 Clemson Tiger football season
And finally, the War Eagles from the plains of Auburn, Alabama reside in the same Conference as Bobby Petrino's long lost hog(s), and last attempted to wrestle the Tiger name from the true Tigers in the Georgia Dome in 2012, falling 26-19. It was the first game of the year for both squads, and the 50-50 neutral-site crowd and primetime national television audience expected-and received-a thriller. It was a back-and-forth affair all night, as Auburn jumped out to a 7-3 first quarter lead before Clemson responded with ten points in the second and limited Auburn to just a field goal to take at 13-10 lead into the half. The second half was almost a carbon copy, as Auburn won the third 6-3, but Clemson put up ten fourth-quarter points and held Auburn to just a field goal to seal the victory. Tajh Boyd directed a Tiger offense that racked up 528 total yards, but it was RB Andre Ellington (25car, 228yds) and WR Deandre "Nuk" Hopkins (13ca, 119yds, 1 td) who stole the offensive show for the Tigers. Settling for four field goals apiece (Clemson's Chandler "Cat Man" Catanzaro, now of the Arizona Cardinals and Auburn's Cody Parkey, now of the Philadelphia Eagles) kept the game tight throughout, however, and it took some late game heroics, Boyd-to-Hopkins in the corner of the endzone, to secure the Clemson win. Auburn went on to a dreadful 3-9 (0-8) season, the program's worst in sixty years, and after the season fired head coach Gene Chizik and replaced him with former offensive coordinator Gus Malzan. Clemson, meanwhile, would end the season right back in the Georgia Dome, beating LSU 25-24 in the Peach Bowl to finish 11-2 (7-1) and #11 in the land.
Highlights of Clemson vs. Auburn 2012
Hopefully the 2014 Tigers can continue the program's historical bird hunting prowess this week as they take on a talented Louisville Cardinal team with a statistically stout "D" and a potentially potent offensive ground attack. The Tigers will have to continue the defensive momentum garnered in last week's shutout of the ‘Pack, and Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, and Adam Choice will have to keep the Cardinal's defense on edge with a consistent ground game if the Tigers are going to exploit what should be a considerable talent gap and come away with a victory. In the end, this battle between felines and feathered foes will hopefully turn out like all the others and nothing will remain of the Cardinals but a few stray red feathers...and Petrino's scarlet letter.