Saturday was one of those days true college football fans dream about ? wonderful weather, a picturesque setting, and a great game that decided a division championship.
Unfortunately for Clemson fans, their Tigers came up just a few plays short of securing a win and a trip to Jacksonville.
Losing always hurt,s but losing such a big game that was literally contested until the last snap, is a much tougher pill to swallow. It is one of the oldest, and possibly most overused, sports clichés, but you would almost rather get your doors blown off than lose like that. For whatever reason, the pain that comes with a blowout does not feel as severe as losing a heartbreaker.
Maybe it is because you do not look back and think about what could have been had you made just a couple of more plays. Maybe it has something to do with not having to hang on to those hopes through an entire game, which can seem like an eternity.
What is done is done. Nothing is going to change the outcome and that empty feeling is going to linger for quite some time.
The good news is there is still a chance to put together a 10-win season with wins over rival South Carolina and a bowl opponent. That would definitely lessen the sting of letting one slip away, which is a much better scenario than having to sit around talking about what could have been until next August.
Instead of breaking down the offense, defense, and special teams this week, I think it is more appropriate to look at some of the good and bad that can be taken from the first 11 games.
The fact that Clemson was so close to winning their division should not be ignored. The Tigers were picked by most to finish no better than second, with many of the experts predicting them to finish in the middle of the pack.
They also looked to be completely out of the running earlier in the season when they lost two straight to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Yet they managed to regroup and beat the lesser opponents on their schedule the way they should. Say what you like, but that is not an easy task considering they felt like they were playing for second place since early October.
Boston College?s loss to Florida State gave the Tigers a second chance at fulfilling their hopes of capturing a title and it put a completely different slant on the Wake Forest game. All of a sudden, that game was about much more than just pride.
With those newfound hopes came the added pressure of having to win a must win game, something which Clemson has struggled with at times over the last few years. As if that were not enough, Clemson has struggled mightily with the Demon Deacons over the last six years.
The game was never in question as Clemson rolled to a 44-10 victory. And although it did not secure a berth in the championship game, it felt as if the Tigers had gotten a monkey off their backs. Finally, in a game that meant so much, they were able to display a killer instinct that had been missing.
The big question was could Clemson put together two solid games in a row when dealing with pressure. Despite the loss, the answer has to be yes.
Clemson played well enough to win the game. Boston College just happened to make one or two more plays on their way to the win. It was not a matter of poor coaching, a lack of motivation, or playing uptight.
They played a very good team and that team won. There is no shame in that.
Matt Ryan is a top notch quarterback. He had his coming out party against Clemson during their last trip to Death Valley and he has been making plays ever since. He will become a multi-millionaire in just a few months when he becomes one of the top picks in the NFL draft.
Boston College is also a team laden with veteran talent. Fifteen of the 44 players listed on their two-deep depth chart are seniors and nine are juniors. By comparison, Clemson has just six seniors and 14 juniors. Within the last three weeks, the Tigers have received significant contributions from six freshmen (Brown, Chavis, Cooper, McDaniel, Gilchrist, and Maxwell) on defense and two (Linthicum and Hairston) on offense.
The offense took a big step forward during the Virginia Tech game. Clemson fought its way back into the game and made it much closer than the score looked. Tyler Grisham dropped a touchdown pass on a third down play in the fourth quarter and the Tigers caught another unfortunate break on the subsequent play when a score was negated because C.J. Spiller had stepped out of bounds before making the catch.
Had either of those plays resulted in a touchdown, Clemson would have likely gotten the two-point conversion because they were getting three yards on command. At that point it would have been an eight point game with over 10 minutes left to play and momentum fully in their favor.
One of the biggest reasons the offense made such strides that night was the decision to move Thomas Austin to center and revamp the guard rotation by sliding Barry Humphries over to guard. The staff deserves credit for trying to get their best players in a position to make plays.
Defenses have made every effort to stop Clemson?s talented duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller. It was a formula that halted the offense during last year?s late season skid, but one that has not worked as well this year due to the emergence of Cullen Harper.
The junior has been nothing short of magnificent despite never having received any significant playing time and managing the difficulties of having to play early in the season with highly touted freshman Willy Korn nipping at his heels. Again, the staff deserves credit for grooming Harper and putting him in a position to be successful.
Offensive coordinator Rob Spence has been criticized during his time at Clemson for being too conservative. Some of that criticism has been deserved, but not this year. When looking at the season in its entirety, he has been anything but conservative. His play calling has been unpredictable and effective. All the while, Clemson has protected the football and is leading the nation in fewest turnovers with 11.
The same goes for the defense. The numbers have not always been eye-popping and the end result has not always come in the prettiest of fashions, but they have played well in every game.
Georgia Tech scored 13 points in their win, but their longest scoring drive was 11 yards. Twenty-one of Virginia Tech?s 41 points came off of returns for touchdowns. Their final offensive touchdown came late in the game against a defense that was worn out after fighting so hard to keep Clemson in it.
Instead of relying heavily on the basic zone defense that many think defensive coordinator Vic Koenning loves, he has mixed up his coverages and offered a variety of different looks and personnel packages.
He has run much more man coverage this year than most realize and, much like the offense, has shuffled players around to get his best unit on the field. The Tigers have notched 10 sacks in the last couple of games while holding two pretty good offenses to a total of 30 points.
And as mentioned earlier, he has doing it with a lot of young talent. Fourteen of the 22 players listed on the defense?s depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.
Clemson has not just shot themselves in the foot in their three losses. They have blown their feet off.
The offense could never get on track against Georgia Tech because they dropped ten balls. Think about that for a minute. TEN.
If you were talking to someone and told them your team dropped just over a quarter of their attempts in a game, they would more than likely assume you were talking about a total of maybe 10 attempts. Clemson had 39 that day.
And we are not talking about passes that receivers had to fight to get a hand on. Those were passes that should have been snagged; passes that hit them in their hands.
If you want to throw out a conservative estimate, you could argue that they lost no less than 100 yards of offense on those miscues, and that is assuming just on the drops. That does not take into consideration the yardage that would have come on plays after the catches were made to extend drives.
If they make half of those plays, they would have likely left Atlanta with a victory.
Special teams killed them against Virginia Tech. If the phrase ?Beamer Ball? was mentioned once that night, it was mentioned 100 times. But Beamer Ball had very little to do with what transpired.
It was Clemson?s lack of effort that led to those breakdowns. The punt return was one in which a lot of guys seemed to be looking around for someone else to make a play. The same is true for the kickoff return.
Clemson had Tech?s return man essentially hog tied near the 20-yard line on the kickoff return. No less that four defenders were almost circled around him like it was some sort of ruthless tackling drill. Instead of making a play, they looked to one another almost as if to see who was ?it? in a crazy game of tag.
If you still are not convinced the Tigers have been a little snake bitten this year, look no further than last week.
Thomas Austin struggled with a few snaps, one of which likely led to an intentional grounding call. Another gaffe came on third-and-goal when he thought Harper was under center when he was actually in the shotgun.
Harper had to fall on the ball instead of catching the snap and throwing for what would have been a surefire touchdown, as Aaron Kelly had settled down about two yards deep in the end zone and was wide open.
The Eagles scored the go-ahead touchdown with just under two minutes to play when Ryan found a wide open receiver across the field after scrambling to his right. Junior safety Chris Clemmons has stated he neglected his duties to provide help over the top, and allowed what should have been his coverage area to go unmanned when he jumped a crossing route after seeing Ryan trying to make a play.
But Clemson still had a chance. After picking up a couple of first downs, they took a shot downfield and Harper threw a perfect strike to Aaron Kelly. It is a catch Kelly probably makes 99 out of 100 times, but that just happened to be the one time he drops it. Had he made the catch, Clemson would have had first-and-goal at the two-yard line and there is not doubt in my mind they would have won.
You hate it for guys like Austin, Clemmons, and Kelly because they have performed at such a high level all year and have done everything that has been asked of them. None of them should be blamed for the loss. It is hard to place that responsibility on any one player or on any one play, especially in such a close game.
Whether you are a fan or just a follower of college football, your heart has to go out to those guys. You cannot be mad at them. You have to feel their hurt and realize they would do anything to have those plays back. The effort and desire was there. They just could not capitalize, which is something we arre all guilty of in some form or fashion.
So with less than two minutes left you have given up a touchdown and dropped a deep pass that would have almost certainly led to a victory. It is over with, right?
Not quite. Clemson somehow put all of that behind them and fought. With about 15 seconds left and the ball on BC?s 30, Clemson took one last shot at winning the game. Harper sat in the pocket and waited for one of his receivers to come open.
Just as he was getting ready to make his move to release what may have been a game winning pass to Rendrick Taylor as he came open, a blitzing cornerback came free for a sack and a loss of seven yards. Just one more second and everything could have been different.
C.J. Spiller was responsible for the corner on that play, but he flared out into the flat. Spiller did not do his job, but it did not necessarily cause the breakdown. By flaring, he took the defensive end out of the play, leaving Chris Capote free to pick up the corner. Capote made a very weak effort and the rest is history.
Like the others, you can not blame Capote for the loss. He played well enough to be chosen as the team?s lineman of the week. He should not be remembered for one bad play.
However, the way he has handled the situation is what is so disappointing. He was quoted as saying, ?That was the running back?s man. I?m glad I was able to get a shoulder in there and knock him off balance. If he would have been unmolested going straight to the quarterback, he would have knocked Cullen out.?
Capote is a lineman. His job is to make blocks. There are times when linemen have to pick up defenders they are not supposed to block by the design of the scheme. It is no different than a back having to make a play on his own because a lineman faltered.
I do not remember ever hearing Davis or Spiller calling a lineman out because they had to make a move because a block was not made. After all, it is their job to make plays.
Capote did not do himself any favors by placing the blame on his teammate, then taking a step further by trying to take credit for almost making a play. Regardless of what the scheme called for, he did not perform up to par on that particular snap. He could stand to learn about humility and giving that extra effort from his peers.
The Boston College loss undoubtedly drained the players, staff, and fans. It takes a while to get over a loss like that. How soon the Tigers can put it behind them is going to be the key to how the season ends.
The coaches and players are saying all of the right things right now, but you have to wonder if their words are backed by substance. It is rivalry week, which should make it easier to get over the hump, but is that going to be enough.
This team has had the right mindset all year long. That is hard to accomplish when you are dealing with a group of 18-22 year-olds. If they can do it at least one more time, Saturday night?s game should be a good one.
Yes, everyone wants to beat South Carolina because of bragging rights. It is the most important game of any season for nearly every fan, but this one holds a little more significance than many of the others.
Clemson needs a win to set things up for the bowl game and next season. A win on Saturday combined with a Boston College loss in the championship game almost assures Clemson will be playing in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. Should they be able to do that and come away with a win against an SEC opponent, the stage will be set for a big season in 2008.
Recruiting is going well and a good foundation of players will return. Clemson loses just six seniors that are significant contributors. If they do not lose any players to the NFL, academics, or off the field issues, 38 of the 44 players on the depth chart will be returning.
Another year has come and gone without an appearance in the ACC championship game. There is not a coach or player that would not give anything to change that, but everything appears to be headed in the right direction. The staff has done a good job of amassing talent and putting those guys in a position to win.
Very few predicted Clemson would be 8-3 at this point and ever fewer would have said that just a month ago. It has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride so far, but overall it has been a success.
The key they know is to finish the job.