I hope you are having a great summer out there as we await another football season to end this 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 started with the bad and discussed how angry I was after the 2004 GT game disaster. It is still the most ridiculous 3 minutes of football I can ever remember from the Tigers. Now for some positive vibes and thinking about when I was the happiest after a Clemson game.
Again, my #1 criterion for myself to narrow this down a bit was that I had to be in attendance for the game. This eliminated the three National Championship wins from contention for me. I was just a 1st grader when the 81 title happened, but that 2016 would no doubt be #1 had I been in the stands for it. I still get chills watching that final drive and only a couple of other games have that effect on me now.
My five contenders for this are as follows:
2003 Florida State
2003 Tennessee (Peach Bowl)
2005 at U of SC
2006 Georgia Tech
2012 LSU (Peach Bowl)
Admittedly, I have missed a lot of major home games since I gave up my season tickets back in 2009 (painful to think about considering where Clemson football went from there). I make 2-3 games a year but often miss the big ticket games due to not wanting to pay an arm and a leg. However, those five above all had me feeling really great about things walking out of the stadium. All of these are post Hatfield-West era when Clemson lost just about every single game of major consequence during that time. The games listed were all part of the hope I was clinging to that Clemson would return to where Danny Ford had the program when I was just a kid growing up. I thought about Clemson having a chance to win it all every single year from when I could actually remember thinking about that around 1984 through the 1989 season. Still felt that way in 1990 but by 1991 it had faded as the reality that Clemson football was stuck in quicksand while many programs were evolving around it.
Obviously, most of the games listed above provided just a tease of this type of resurgence until the game that wins it for me:
2012 LSU in the Peach Bowl.
A lot of the goodwill that 2011’s ACC title team created with its incredible start to the season was lost with the flame out at the end, save the great performance against Virginia Tech in Charlotte. Of course, the game that shall not be mentioned here led to a welcome change at defensive coordinator. By this time, I had really realized the folly of my false hope during the big wins of the Bowden era. While Clemson had, for the most part, taken its offense into the modern day and had started to acquire the requisite skill at QB/WR/RB to contend against the top teams, the lines of scrimmage had continued to be the real issue that held the Tigers back. Having all the skill that mattered back in 2008 didn’t matter when Alabama showed that just whipping the Tigers up front on both sides all but negated all of it. Boston College had been teaching that hard lesson during that three-game winning streak they enjoyed from 05-07 as well. Clemson’s dominance over the Gamecocks turned largely because the Gamecocks became the superior team up front.
Clemson had a very good year in 2012, with a big win over Auburn and just 1 ACC loss to a very strong FSU team in Tallahassee. However, the Tigers were beaten rather handily by the Gamecocks in Death Valley, largely due to Clemson’s inability to control the lines of scrimmage despite having an electric offense. Clemson drew LSU for the bowl game, a program that was one year removed from playing for the BCS Title and featuring, at the time, one of the most talented rosters the Tigers had ever lined up against. To make matters worse, they were built exactly the way the teams who had stymied the Tigers were built. They had a power running game with game-breaking skill on the outside (OBJ and Jarvis Landry), and a loaded defense who could generate the kind of pressure that had typically led to a lot of turnovers from Clemson. I remember very well the narrative before that game was that LSU would bully Clemson, and I walked into the Georgia Dome with a lot of apprehension that would transpire.
The game certainly started the way those nay-sayers predicted. Sammy Watkins was blown up on a little gimmick counter play, fumbled, and was knocked out the game. LSU promptly scored easily. Clemson was also down a starting offensive tackle and was having to play a freshman named Isaiah Battle, whose instructions were something along the lines of “get run over slowly” when he was pressed into action.
LSU built a lead and had busted some big runs with star freshman running back Jeremy Hill, but something began to happen that gave the Tiger fans some hope. The first thing was seeing how quarterback Tajh Boyd was seemingly un-phased by the relentless pass rush coming at him. This was a welcome change after seeing Boyd have some issues with that against the Gamecocks and Seminoles in 2012 as well as the poor close to 2011. Also, despite a secondary loaded with future NFL draft picks, Deandre Hopkins was consistently beating whoever was trying to cover him much like he had done to the Auburn secondary in the very first game when Watkins was suspended. Despite the hype Watkins had generated (and rightfully so) from his epic 2011 freshman campaign, Nuk was without question WR1 throughout that 2012 season even when Watkins was available. The offense found a way to move the ball and generate some points against that elite defense.
Meanwhile, Brent Venables and his very young defensive front seven found its footing. The unexpected star of the night became a highly recruited but not exactly super productive (prior to this game) Malliciah Goodman. Clemson’s dominance against a top 10 level Virginia Tech in 2011 was largely due to Andre Branch completely owning VT’s left tackle in both games. This time, Goodman went to work on LSU’s right tackle and registered huge sack after huge sack. That pass rush helped a Clemson secondary having to deal with two future NFL starters on the perimeter and helped Venables bring numbers against the run without getting burned over the top.
Still, the Tigers were down in the fourth quarter and seemingly dead in the water after Boyd was sacked to create the 4th and 16 situation. Any Tiger fan worth his or her salt knows this iconic play, but just in case:
From my view of this play, it seemed like the ball had gone THROUGH an LSU defender as they tried to bracket Hopkins with a drop 7 coverage. It was mind boggling that Boyd even attempted that pass or that Nuk could track the ball in that traffic to make the catch. LSU really could not have defended that much better without a pass interference call. That play flipped the momentum of the drive. Even after the Tigers had reached field goal range, I still held my breath after living through some epic special teams disasters in recent years. “Cat-Man” Chandler Catanzaro had come a long way from his shaky beginnings as the placekicker, but he hadn’t yet really faced a pressure kick like this. As New Year’s Day approached, the kick was good and the celebration was on. We found the closest bar to the Dome to ring in the New Year and toast to a monumental victory. This one truly felt different, and it indeed helped flip the script on the narrative that Clemson wasn’t tough enough to compete against the ultra physical SEC elites who had been dominating the BCS era.
It feels great to watch the highlights of that game and recall those emotions even 10 years later. I look forward to reading what you guys have to offer on this topic!