Many have brought this game up in the course of comments on the other volumes of WTF Thursday. It is hard to pinpoint which season was more indicative of the total lack of consistency from the Bowden era Tigers, the 03 squad or its successor. Both teams coupled mind boggling lows with euphoric moments and both teams had Tommy all but fired to negotiating contract extensions. This week, we travel back to the year 2004, where we already had one epic WTF moment in game #2 discussed here. That squad used the meltdown against GT as a great reason to play like total crap the following weeks (albeit against a brutal road stretch) versus Texas A@M, FSU, and UVA (when they were actually pretty good). Not only was Clemson losing those games, they were blowout losses. The season seemed totally lost sitting at 1-4.
Fast forward to the NCST game and the Tigers had managed to crawl back to 4-4, but the level of competition was dubious and a trip to Coral Gables lurked on the horizon. Miami was still a national power, just two years removed from playing for consecutive national titles (which they probably should have attained if not for a terrible injury to Willis McGahee and a terrible call against OSU). There were NFL draft picks all over the roster and it seemed the 'Canes had lost like 2 games in 20 years at home. In a story fit for TGIF Triumphs, the Tigers won and the fan base was revived. The Tigers had figured out that having some facet of a running game and just passing off of that was the way they had to go, or so it seemed. Reggie Merriweather had emerged as the workhorse after platooning with Yusef Kelly, Duane Coleman, and Kyle Browning earlier in the year. The Tigers began to use more I formation and less shotgun/spread and seemed to find enough offense to win games while the defense had really begun to play well. Now fans were ready to show the love and travel in droves to what should have been a celebratory beating of the pitiful Duke Blue Devils in Wallace Wade Stadium.
I was among the many who decided to make the trip to Durham that day. My group and I figured we would easily score a ticket outside the stadium and settle in for the fun. Duke entered the day a woeful 1-8 with the only victory coming against a very bad 1-AA Citadel team. Most of those losses were blowouts, including one to Navy. That was enough to send the usually indifferent Dookies hiding to the point we struggled to find anybody selling tickets outside the stadium. Thousands upon thousands of Tiger fans searched the grounds with fingers held high before many (including my group) resigned to getting in the line for General Admission Tickets at the stadium itself. I would estimate at least 14,000 Tiger fans were in the stands that day. The team got a rousing applause as it came out on the field and we all got ready for the whipping that was sure to unfold.
The Tiger offense had really begun to feature what would be termed the SAFA (Stand Around, Fart Around) approach as 2004 went on under coordinator Mike O'Cain. This was especially evident when the Tigers went spread. The offense was no huddle and would line up quickly, but it never failed that no matter how unprepared the defense might have been at that moment (and this was long before the refs were standing over the ball to let substitutions happen), Whitehurst was going to look over to the sidelines, get a play, and then get the play off with 3-7 seconds left on the play clock. The premise was to see what the defense showed and try to get into a good play to attack it, but Duke coach Ted Roof and his staff deftly figured out that the SAFA had no initial play call, just a formation/personnel grouping, and would not have time to change the play once the staff finally decided what it was going to call initially. I don't claim to be a highly experienced football coach, having only done it once in my career and that was years ago, but I seemed to get a pretty good read on what Dook was doing as the game got into the second quarter. Dook was simply showing one defense as Clemson lined up, waiting on Whitehurst to look over and get a play, and then they just audible to something else. The Tigers started several drives with I formation and a power run with Reggie that would net 5-7 yards consistently, but then inexplicably go spread for the remainder of the drive. Whitehurst was finding Duke in perfect defenses against what we had called more often than not. Clemson couldn't find anything down field and was miserable on third down. To make things worse, one of the drives early on self destructed when O'Cain and crew tried to sneak Justin Miller on as QB for a wildcat play. This MIGHT have been a decent idea had we not had to call timeout because of the play clock. For some unknown reason, Miller came back out to run the play after Duke had seen it and talked about it and it was stuffed for a yard loss and a turnover. Thanks to turnovers (which Clemson had 4), Duke had managed 2 field goals despite very little offense and the game was tied at 6 at the half.
We spent halftime mostly cursing that Justin Miller QB disaster and the SAFA offense. It was apparent to me and those around me that we were better than Duke up front and should just line up in the I and power the ball right at them with Reggie and Coleman. Both guys would average over 4 yards a run, but the insistence of the team to go spread after first down was just mind boggling. Then the obvious ploy by Duke to change defenses once we called a play was never countered with a quick snap or having a play ready at the start to use if Duke showed something favorable. Clemson was bound and determined to screw this game up and after getting into Duke territory, something hideous unfolded. Instead of letting Jad Dean attempt a long field goal, the coaches (although some of the blame got dumped on holder Cole Chason) inexplicably tried to fake the field goal. This MIGHT have been a good idea if we only had 2 yards to get, like at Miami the game before, and an underdog with nothing really to lose. However, Clemson had at least 6 or 7 yards to gain for a first down AND had already executed a fake the week before so Duke...yes this was DUKE...was beyond ready and stuffed it for like 12 yard loss. We all just screamed "KICK THE EFFING BALL!" Despite this, Clemson finally scratched out a drive for a touchdown by Reggie on a 3 yard run. Even up just 13-6, the defense had been so dominant we figured we could ride it out and escape. Later, the Tigers had the chance to bury the Devils when Kelvin Grant got wide open on a crossing pattern. After hitting next to nothing in the passing game all day beyond 6 yards, Charlie laid the ball in there perfectly, but the mercurial Grant (one of the biggest busts/disappointments in modern recruiting history) dropped the ball on what would have been a TD if not a play inside the 10 yard line. To make matters much worse, the Dookie students had gotten wind that the game was close and had begun showing up more and more as the game was going on. Now they were being their usual insufferable selves as the Tiger faithful in attendance sat dumbfounded at what had unfolded to this point.
A chain of events not far removed from the disasters that gave GT the chance to beat us earlier in the season unfolded again before my unbelieving eyes. After completely stuffing the Duke offense all day (their only points coming via field position after Clemson turnovers or a kick return), Clemson allowed Duke to scratch out a TD when they took advantage of David Dunham in pass coverage (who was subbing for the exhausted Leroy Hill at the time). While we all know (and Matt Ryan and Cory Boyd know) that Dunham was a huge hitter, he wasn't great laterally and got exposed a bit on that late drive. However, Clemson got the ensuing kickoff and we all figured we would play for OT and win it there.
Not so fast, as ol' Lee Corso is famous for saying. I'm all for trying to win the game in regulation, but you have to be smart with the football when losing it gives the other team good field position. Despite have very little success trying to pass the ball in this game, especially out of the spread (Whitehurst was 12-27 for a paltry 112 yards for the game), the coaches elected to try to pass the ball down field. The mediocre field position and shaky kicking game (see stupid fake call mentioned earlier) made being aggressive here a real head scratcher. In classic WTF fashion, Whitehurst tried to hit Michael Collins over the middle but he fell down (or was interfered with, but no call was made) and Duke's deep safeties easily picked the ball off. Still, Duke's only shot was attempting a 53 yard field goal by a guy who had only kicked sub 30 yard attempts this day. We awaited the miss and prepared ourselves for the OT session, but, of course, he drilled the kick and it would have been good from 56 probably. It took all my being to avoid a fight leaving the stadium with the Dookie nerds parading around acting like they had won the Superbowl. After all, we had no one to blame but ourselves for following up one of the greatest wins in program history with one of the worst losses. Mike O'Cain infamously proclaimed that he was "confused" by Duke's defense and would join John Lovett on the unemployment line at season's end. W-T-F!