I hope you are having a great summer out there as we await another football season to end the dreaded Dark Territory period in college athletics. I usually do some retrospective series of articles during this time. This year, I’ve decided to do two topics I think make for good discussion fodder. I think starting with the bad then going to the good is always the move, so #1 in this mini-series is built on recalling the maddest you have ever been after a Clemson football game.
Being a fan brings all the emotions, most of which are fun. Even the mad moments can be a little fun, usually MUCH later after the fact, but I often chuckle now at how worked up I got about something involving a game when looking back. If you’ve read this site for a while, you know I’m one of the elder statesmen of the staff (if not THE elder) and grew up on Danny Ford. I’ve lived through a lot of the “modern” era of college football and seen a lot of good, bad, and ugly over that span.
With that in mind, I had to narrow my criteria a bit to include only games I had attended in person. There is a different level of feeling when you are there for whatever went down vs. watching on a TV somewhere. My father would just turn off the TV in anger and boycott the remainder of a game if he got too upset about it. Some folks will leave a bad game early, but I’ve done that really only once that would count, which was halftime of the 2003 Wake Forest game in Winston-Salem. That game was certainly in the mix for my entry.
So, of the games I’ve attended in my life, I narrowed it down to these five for my story:
- 1993 Wake Forest game
- 2003 at Wake Forest game
- 2004 Georgia Tech game
- 2004 at Duke game
- 2022 U of SC game
All of these have a few things in common beyond just Clemson taking an L. One of the biggest factors is how inexplicable the defeat really was because the opponent was either just above average at best (see 03 Wake, 04 GT, 22 USCjr) or downright terrible (93 Wake, 04 Duke). Losing a game you have no business losing is the bitterest pill to swallow in my mind. But after really thinking about the entire game plus the hours and days that followed, this game rose above the others for me:
2004 Georgia Tech game. This remains the most mind boggling loss I have ever witnessed for Clemson with my own eyes. Never have I seen defeat absolutely ripped from the jaws of victory like I did that night in Death Valley. It was a perfect storm that started back in 2003, when I saw the Tigers don the purple and destroy the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta. I was there for the FSU game when the Tigers finally broke the stranglehold the Seminoles had over them and the ACC. I was there for the Peach Bowl when the Tigers took down a top 10 Tennessee team. 2004 was supposed to build on all that resurgence from the end of 2003. I was willing to overlook the near choke job in game one against Wake Forest because the Deacons under Jim Grobe had given Bowden’s teams fits. It was a defensive struggle, but Kyle Browning broke a 54-yard TD run right at my seats in the West endzone to put the Tigers up two scores with just over 3 minutes to play. It was one of two long TD runs that night from a Clemson team that had struggled to run the ball since 2001. My childhood best friend was there with me along with my sister and we joyously celebrated the coming victory thinking about what players we might find at the Gathering at the Paw afterwards.
Then things started getting uneasy. 2004 Clemson featured two top level corners in Justin Miller and Tye Hill. Defensive Coordinator John Lovett loaded up to stop GT’s featured running attack and, for the most part, had great success that night. However, when you are up 10 with under 3 to play, worrying about GT’s running game seemed foolish. However, Clemson stayed with man coverages and blitzes allowing GT to hit multiple fade routes to freshman superstar Calvin Johnson. As great as Miller and Hill were, two guys drafted in the 2nd and 1st rounds respectively, Johnson was a unicorn future HOF talent who beat both of them on jump balls. I will go to my grave believing John Lovett lost his job that night. When he was replaced with Vic Koenning before the 2005 season, it was said during interviews Koenning had “a way to double a WR” in his defensive package.
Still, even after Johnson had scored on an 8 yard fade to cut the lead to 3, all Clemson had to do was get one first down. No problem! First and 10, Clemson gets nearly 9 yards on a run. GT burned a timeout. 2nd down, if memory serves, was a dive or maybe even a QB sneak that didn’t get anywhere. GT burned another timeout. Third and short to end the game, and the Tigers hand it to that year’s power back option Yusef Kelly. I cheered from my seat as I saw his body clearly fall beyond the line to gain. However, the scrum behind him eventually revealed to those in the stands that he had fumbled the ball behind him. Disastrous as that was, the Tigers had recovered the ball and GT was now out of timeouts. We were a little nervous but felt we had dodged the major bullet.
Punt team rolls out there just needing to get it off against an obvious punt block call from GT. The Yellow Jackets would have less than 20 seconds and no timeouts. Then it happened. The worst long snap I have ever seen in person at the worst possible time looked like one of my badly topped drives off a tee. It barely got off the ground from the start and squirmed by Cole Chason another 10 yards or so inside the 15 before he could jump on the ball.
Even after THAT, GT was out of timeouts and too far out to realistically run the football. All Clemson had to do was protect the endzone and prepare for a likely second straight week of overtime. GT’s coach was Chan Gailey who smartly lined up in 22 personnel which Lovett had loaded the box on all night and did so again despite the very unlikely chance GT would actually try to run the ball in that spot. That left Johnson one on one with Miller in press coverage with no help and we know how that ended.
The GT fans and band were to our left in the West and South stands and were understandably going crazy and adding pounds of salt to this now gaping wound of shock and horror. That quickly gave way to anger as my group cussed about it all the way to our cars and then during the entire crawl down Highway 93 to 123 to head out of town. At one point my best friend’s car and mine were side by side sitting on 93 and we rolled our windows down to cuss it all some more. The 04 team would follow that act by losing the next three games by at least 19 points, somehow manage to beat Miami in Miami Orange Bowl Stadium, then offer me up another honorable mention moment at Wallace-Wade Stadium in Durham.
So, that one tops my list. What game tops yours? I look forward to reading about it in the comments and next week we will look at the flip side moment of being the HAPPIEST after a Clemson football game.