We have discussed a lot of moments from the Bowden era in the WTF and TGIF series this summer. It was a strange time of blissful highs and rising expectations coupled with crippling losses and rampant hot seat talk. It certainly was a more exciting time than the 92 to 98 stretch when Clemson fans were fed a large plate of mediocrity followed by bowl game defeats. The 2003 season had seen the breakthrough wins against FSU and Tennessee, followed by proclamations that Clemson was "back." This, of course, was not the case as the 2004 season was an all over the place 6-5 campaign.
Out went Mike O'Cain and John Lovett; in came Rob Spence and Vic Koenning. Clemson fans went into 2005 with extreme caution after feeling burned by the 04 team. However, the Tigers upset Texas A&M to start the season (actually being very strong in the kicking game, a rarity under Bowden), and added a blowout of the Noles, a victory over Spurrier's coots in Cootlumbia, and a bowl win over Colorado to get folks thinking something big could be coming. That something big was the biggest signing day upset in many years as Florida superstar C.J. Spiller chose Clemson over hometown powers FSU, Florida, and Miami. Now the Tigers had freshmen studs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, along with '04 hero Reggie Merriweather to go with the entire offensive line from 05. Even though Charlie Whitehurst had moved on to the NFL, the feeling was if Will Proctor could manage the offense, the 2006 season could be very special indeed.
The 2006 team's offense went on a rampage not seen since the 8-0 start to the 2000 season. The only blemish on the slate was a double O.T. loss at Boston College which was aided by some very bad officiating and familiar special teams fiascoes. That was followed by a major victory in Tallahassee (the first and only since 1989) as well as the Gaines Adams-fueled comeback win at troublesome Wake Forest, and the Tigers approached the top 10 as Calvin Johnson and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets came to town. GT also had just one loss, a tight defeat to then #3 Notre Dame, and had pulled off a huge win at then-ACC kingpin Virginia Tech. Both teams had huge momentum and ESPN took it to another level by picking the matchup for Gameday. The pregame show had gone from just another Saturday talk fest to THE event in college football in just a few short years. A visit from Gameday meant your game was huge and that you mattered on a national stage. The opportunity to elevate the Tiger brand was not lost on the Tiger faithful who showed up in droves, many without tickets to the game, to tailgate from sunrise to kickoff. The energy was palpable from Lot 12 to 3A to 1 to Cemetery Hill and beyond. This was IT.
As kickoff approached and the Valley prepared to greet the Tigers at the top of the hill, things hit another gear as Clemson appeared in all purple uniforms. Regardless of the wide range of opinions on the purple, I can tell you that it didn't matter at that moment as the place went nuts. The first half looked like it was going to be just another down to the wire game with the Jackets as neither team could muster a scoring drive. Clemson moved the ball but Will Proctor really struggled throwing it (which became a common theme that season) and turnovers derailed two promising drives in the first stages of the game. However, the Tiger defense was playing some inspired football and put a blanket on Megatron like he hadn't seen before.
(Koenning's finest moments at Clemson may have been his work against GT. The 2005 loss in Atlanta was really on the offense as Charlie Whitehurst could barely throw the ball with his hurt shoulder and the team committed some bad turnovers. From 2005-08, Koenning's defenses held Georgia Tech to 12.5 points per game, yet the Tigers were just 1-3 in those four matchups.)
Probably at the heart of the defensive effort that day was a linebacker named Antonio Clay. Clay had come to Clemson with much fanfare after being committed to Oklahoma (and at least one other power) before signing with Clemson. Clay struggled with personal tragedy that derailed his career, but before that happened, he put on a show in this game. Clay was everywhere against the GT run game and helped harass Reggie Ball. For one night he made Tiger fans forget about fallen leader Anthony Waters who was lost in week one to an ACL injury. Soon Clemson was able to make good on some promising runs from Davis and scored to take a 7-0 lead into the half.
The real fireworks went off after halftime as Clemson's offensive line began to totally dominate the GT front. With talent like James Davis and C.J. Spiller, just adequate OL play was enough for them to do damage. When the OL played beyond adequate, the Tiger fans got to feast on what true four and five star talent can do. I just remember Davis breaking off 7, 8, 15, and 30 yards on just about every run. Even more memorable, of course, was the coming out party for C.J. Spiller. Spiller had already had moments of brilliance in his true freshman season. His catch and run score at BC was an incredible display of his open-field elusiveness. The week before in Winston-Salem, I had a very good view from the stands of his fourth quarter touchdown run when I got a true sense of just how fast C.J. was. Spiller had gotten loose down the sideline and the Wake safety Josh Gattis (who would later play in the NFL) had an angle on him. Not only did Spiller beat him to the endzone, Gattis didn't even get a hand on him. I still think C.J. is the fastest guy in pads I've ever seen in Orange. GT might agree after C.J. made a jump cut and exploded up the middle for a 50 yard touchdown run to make the game 17-0.
The Jackets managed to get on the scoreboard with a touchdown by the other Johnson, mainly due to Crezdon Butler deflecting the ball to him, but the most memorable play of this epic evening quickly followed. My seats were in the West Stands and the action was coming right at me. The Tigers were looking at a 3rd-and-4 from midfield. Will Proctor went almost immediately to his check down in the flat, who was Spiller, and what followed was probably the nastiest combination of moves I've ever witnessed anywhere at anytime. Spiller had linebacker KaMichael Hall on him almost as soon as he caught the ball but was able to jump cut to the inside so fast that Hall didn't even touch him. Not only was C.J. ridiculously quick, his 0-60 was like a Ferrari F430. Safety Kenny Scott was the next to find that out as C.J. faked him right out of his jock strap and went full afterburners for the 50 yard TD.
James Davis would put the final touches on the magical night and the 31-7 beating. We all left the Valley feeling like a return to prominence was finally upon us. It was easy to overlook the issues in the passing game with Will Proctor when the running game was this devastating. The trouble signs were all there, beginning with the dying quails seen in Winston-Salem and the less than stellar showing against the Jackets when the top passing play went about 5 yards in the air and Lightning did the rest. Virginia Tech would bring things crashing to earth in an unkind schedule twist that had the Tigers playing just five days later on a Thursday night. However, any Tiger fan that was in the Valley on October 21st, 2006 would attest to it being about as good as it gets. To close out this post, I want to share a video from Shoeless Films, who is the best of the best in this department in my opinion. If this doesn't get your motor running full speed, you better find an EKG and some shock pads.