2008: A New Era Begins
This is a personal moment for me that I'll never forget, but it encapsulates the broader memory of what was a tremendously disappointing season. After skipping class to attend Clemson's Thursday night loss at Wake Forest, I returned back to campus hoping Friday would bring news about a head coaching change for Clemson, but nothing came across the ticker.
Monday morning, as my 9:00am marketing class was wrapping up a student in the back stood up while the lecturer was speaking. He held his Blackberry up and Mrs. Fine paused to see what message was so urgent to merit interruption. As the class looked his way, he blurted out "Tommy Bowden resigned!" After a moment's hesitation, Mrs. Fine gave the only possible response: "class dismissed!" We ran out of class early and celebrated a hopeful future.
That's my moment from 2008. A broader moment for anyone who was at the South Carolina game that year came in the final minutes of the victory as a "Da-bo Swi-nney! Da-bo Swi-nney!" chant broke out. At that moment, I think we all knew who would take the helm. If you missed that one, then it must be the emotional presser above where Coach Swinney promised to "recruit the very best student athletes we can, graduate them, and win a championship."
2009: Clemson Tells FSU 'We Will Rock You,' Then McDaniel Rocks Ponder
The Tigers entered the fourth quarter with a three point deficit and struggling mightily to make field goals (or even PATs). C.J. Spiller and Andre Ellington helped a Kyle Parker led offense down the field to punch in a TD to take the lead. After TD pass from Kyle Parker on the subsequent drive, the Tigers were up two possessions in the waning minutes of the game. That's when "We Will Rock You" began playing. The crowd quickly joined in and 80,000 were screaming the lyrics to the Queen classic (6:00 mark of video). It was just moments later that Ponder threw an ill-advised pass which McDaniel picked for his 8th interception of the season. McDaniel began running it back and saw Ponder coming for the tackle. Rather than step out of bound or try to cut in and avoid the tackle, McDaniel does the unthinkable and simply lowers his should and rocks Christian Ponder (6:37 mark of the video). They both go down, but Ponder left with a shoulder injury. The Tigers would punch it in to score 40 points and secure the ACC Atlantic Division Title.
Note: 2009 was the most challenging year to pick from. We also had the CJ Spiller kick return at Maryland where his shoe came off and he still broke a tackle and ran 50 more yards for a TD (1:50 of this video) and the Kyle Parker to Jacoby Ford OT TD to beat #10 Miami on the road (2:22:22 of this video).
2010: Jamie Harper Makes Diving Catch to Put Clemson up 17-0 at Auburn, Cam Newton Leads Comeback
2010 was by far the least enjoyable season of my Clemson fandom. The season hit its high-point awfully early as the Tigers took a 17-0 lead at Auburn when Jamie Harper dove for an amazing catch on the wheel route. Unfortunately, they'd blow the lead, lose the game, and finish below .500 after a bowl loss to USF.
2011: Rennie Moore Sack Ends FSU Drive, Clemson Wins ACC Atlantic
After a disastrous 2010 season, Clemson began their run of success under Dabo Swinney in 2011. After a week 3 victory over Auburn, Clemson faced FSU and it seemed nothing could stop the new Chad Morris offense. The Tigers tallied 35 points, but Florida State was getting a virtuoso performance from second-string QB Clint Trickett and remained within striking distance in the final minutes. That's when Clemson's defense, a generally weak unit at the time, stepped up. They held their coverage while the D-line collapsed the pocket. Rennie Moore who was playing with an injured shoulder broke through the middle and planted Trickett firmly to the ground ending the Seminole drive and hopes of a road win.
It gave the Tigers consecutive victories over marquee opponents - something unthinkable after a 6-7 2010 season. It was at this point that we started to realize how good the Chad Morris hiring may be and ponder the possibility that Dabo really could deliver on the promises he made in that opening press conference.
Note: 2011 was another year with a great many memories including the Sammy Watkins KO return at Maryland, and the Mike Bellamy TD run in Blacksburg. Of course, there was also the Orange Bowl debacle that included the 99-yard fumble return.
2012: Tajh Boyd connects with DeAndre Hopkins on 4th and 16, Clemson Defeats LSU in Chick-fil-A Bowl
LSU's defensive front was incredibly talented in 2012 with a handful players like Barkevious Mingo a game away from declaring for the NFL draft. As such, Clemson was a significant underdog. The Clemson Tigers played with tremendous heart. Tajh Boyd often found himself on the ground but displayed great toughness - always getting back up. He played arguably the best game of his career in putting up 339 yards and two TDs.
In the fourth quarter, trailing by 8, Clemson scored a TD but failed on the 2-point conversion. A defensive stand gave them the ball back in the waning minutes. A field goal would win it, but the Tigers found themselves in a precarious situation - 4th & 16 on their own side of the field (0:45 of the above video). That's when Boyd connected with "Nuk" Hopkins for the conversion. He'd connect with Hopkins a few more times before Chandler Catanzaro made the field goal that announced to the world, we can compete and beat even the biggest and best from the best conference in the country.
Nuk Hopkins set the Chick-fil-A Bowl receiving yards record with 190 receiving yards. Tajh Boyd had the best game of his career, and Chandler Catanzaro had the kick that will define his Clemson career.
2013 Sammy Watkins Trucks Defender, Outraces UGA to 77-yd TD
Campus was abuzz, College Gameday broadcast from Bowman Field, and the Tigers entrance was live broadcast from ABC. The nation saw how special Clemson truly is. It was a competitive back-and-forth game. When it was tied at 7-7, Sammy Watkins did Sammy Watkins things. He flashed both power and speed breaking a tackle before outrunning the UGA defense for a long TD to give the Tigers the lead.
2014: Artavis Scott Steps Everywhere But Out of Bounds, Tigers Begin Win Streak vs S. Carolina
Clemson was the better team all year, but with Deshaun Watson banged up it seemed like the painful five year losing streak to the Gamecocks could continue. When it was announced that Watson would play, there was hope, but Pharaoh Cooper quickly put the Tigers down 0-7. Clemson responded with a Artavis Scott TD. Gallman and Watson would also add TDs before half.
With the Tigers up 21-10, Artavis Scott fired the blow that would end the losing streak. Off a forward pitch, Scott weaved through the defense into the red zone where the defender dove and tripped him up. Rather than step out of bounds, he stepped on the defenders hand to remain in bounds and waltz into the end zone. (Full highlights here.)
Note: The highest high and the lowest low from Cole Stoudt also should be mentioned. His pick six in the red zone against Georgia Tech spoiled hopes of a major bowl berth, but his resilient performance in an absolute stomping of Oklahoma left a lasting impression - specifically his long TD to Germone Hopper as he was being hit.
2015: Clemson Stops Notre Dame 2-Point Conversion Attempt, Enters National Stage
BYOG (Bring Your Own Guts) was born on this night, as was a national title contender - potentially for years to come.
After Clemson put Notre Dame on their heels and entered the fourth quarter with a 21-3 lead, Notre Dame stormed back to pull within two with a two-point conversation attempt that would send the game to overtime. With all the momentum favoring Notre Dame, Clemson found a way to get one last stop and gut out a rain soaked victory.
It was an early season victory, and only made Clemson 4-0 at the time, but it shocked many experts who still didn't believe that Clemson was elite. After beating Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, and Ohio State, beating Notre Dame was the win that finally made lugubrious pundits acknowledge Clemson as an elite football program.
As the steady, driving rain poured seeing both men and women completely dedicated to supporting their team made me proud. As Clemson positioned themselves for a win, I recall looking to the sky as rain drops pelted me and saying aloud "this is what it's like to be elite." Clemson entered the national stage.