Commentary: Nothing Has Come Easy for the Tigers

by - Correspondent -
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CLEMSON -- The 2004 edition of the Clemson football Tigers continues to amaze even its most devoted fans and this particular team's penchant for playing close games could easily earn them the often-used sports nickname of "Cardiac Kids." Nothing has come easy for this squad - from the overtime win over Wake Forest to start the year to the heartbreaking loss to Georgia Tech to three consecutive nail-biting wins over Maryland, N.C. State and Miami.

In two of those wins, the Tigers had to come from behind in the fourth quarter and, against the 'Canes, the Tigers again pulled a win out of the hat in overtime.

The Miami game was further proof that just when you thought it was easy to figure out this squad, they turn around and do the opposite.

After all, most of us so called experts felt Clemson was dead and buried after the team's 1-4 start. No one doubted the Tigers would defeat Utah State, which they did, but that only left the squad at 2-4 with three consecutive games against Maryland, N.C. State and Miami - not a pleasant sight for a successful team, much less a struggling one.

At best, I felt the Tigers had to sweep both the Terrapins and Wolfpack while figuring they had about as much of a chance of beating Miami as Ed McMahon bringing a million dollar check to my front door. The way the Tigers played in the first half last Saturday appeared to justify my belief.

When the two teams hit the Orange Bowl locker room at halftime, Clemson found itself in a 17-3 hole. Earlier this season, especially against Texas A&M and Virginia, the Tigers play would have given fans no reason to hope for a comeback and being down by two touchdowns to a perennial Top 5 program, which once enjoyed a 58-game home winning streak, provided even less cause for optimism.

However, this Clemson team is different from the one Tiger fans saw earlier in the season. Led by a defense which continues to improve week-by-week and an offense spearheaded by running back Reggie Meriweather and wide receiver Airise Currie, Clemson has developed a penchant in recent weeks for getting up off the mat.

The Tigers, thanks to a Meriweather touchdown run in the third quarter and a fake field goal in the fourth quarter, rallied to tie the Hurricanes. Those two scores turned thoughts for at least a respectable Clemson loss into hopes of an upset victory.

When the game went into overtime and Clemson, by virtue of losing a coin toss, was forced to first go on offense, I admit to being less than optimistic. After all, the team that goes on offense last has the advantage of seeing what their opponent is able to do, through either scoring a touchdown or field goal or turning the ball over, and knowing what they have to do when their turn arises.

But this Clemson team, led by Meriweather's second touchdown, scored first and the Hurricanes, by finding themselves behind for the first time all night, actually saw the pressure shift onto themselves to match the score.

Although a pass completion by Miami quarterback Brock Berlin made things interesting on the Hurricanes possession, the Tigers defense again stiffened. When Clemson cornerback Tye Hill successfully defended Berlin's fourth down pass, the only thing Clemson fans had to do was wait and see if a yellow hanky emerged before the celebration could begin.

Once that worry was alleviated, Tiger fans were able to celebrate arguably the biggest Clemson road win since the 1986 game in Athens against the University of Georgia.

The past week has been an exciting one for Clemson fans and why not? No matter how physically banged up or overrated Miami might have been in the eyes of some, the fact that Clemson traveled into a hostile environment, rallied from two touchdowns behind to force overtime and then had to rely on both their offense and defense to win in the extra frame is nothing short of remarkable.

Clemson players, coaches and fans alike should feel proud of this program right now. They have emerged from about as low a valley as a team could find itself into now having an opportunity to appear in some sort of holiday bowl game. Remember, no team in the history of the ACC has ever started a season

1-4 and rebounded to qualify for a bowl game - meaning that Clemson should be extra motivated come Saturday.

At the same time, the Tigers must also realize that their biggest challenges lay ahead.

Despite the fact that Duke and South Carolina cannot be mistaken for Miami as far as tradition and talent, Clemson now finds itself back in its early season role as the hunted rather than the hunter it had become in recent weeks. The first test in seeing how the Tigers respond takes place Saturday in Durham ‹ a place that is more dangerous than would initially appear.

While no one could ever mistake Wallace Wade Stadium to the loud and raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium it is that lack of atmosphere that often lulls visiting teams to sleep both symbolically and, sometimes, literally.

Tiger fans can count numerous instances through the years where even more heralded Clemson teams have fallen by the wayside. Remember 1989 when the No. 7 Tigers took their undefeated record into Durham only to fall to a Steve Spurrier coached team that still appeared to be no match for the Danny Ford-led Tigers.

Throughout the 1990's, Clemson seemingly struggled each time they ventured to Durham and even lost to the Blue Devils during their 5-6 and 3-8 seasons of 1994 and 1998. Just two years ago, the Tigers had to rally for an Aaron Hunt field goal in the final seconds to erase a two-touchdown deficit for a
34-31 win.

Even more disturbing was the remark made by Clemson wide receiver Kelvin Grant earlier this week. Granted, Grant was a freshman and was being redshirted when he admittedly fell asleep during the Duke game two years ago, but if he is a representation of how the team feels about playing there then this Saturday could be a long day.

Record-wise and statistically, Clemson should win this game because they clearly are more talented and certainly have a great deal more riding on the outcome. However, I'm sure Miami didn't expect to lose to North Carolina or Texas A&M to Baylor - meaning that Clemson had better be aware of the dangers that come when one team is an overwhelming favorite over another.

The challenge facing Clemson this week is different than the past three Saturdays. The expectations of beating Duke are much greater than beating teams such as Maryland, N.C. State and Miami and that means the disappointment of losing will be magnified even further.

Clemson could still qualify for a bowl by defeating South Carolina a week from Saturday even if they were to do the unthinkable and lose at Duke.

However, the Duke game presents an opportunity for Clemson to take care of business in the here and now rather than against an arch-rival still licking its wounds over last year's 63-17 pounding and one which would like nothing more than to personally end the Tigers season.

The Duke game will serve as a measuring stick of just how far this team has progressed from a maturity standpoint. We have seen how the Clemson players have reacted with their backs against the wall by prevailing in three consecutive "must win" games and now the trick will be to see how they fare in a game they are expected to win.

While everything appears to weigh in Clemson's favor this week, don't be surprised if the Tigers continue to struggle or, forbid, lose this game.

After all, there has been nothing simple about Clemson's season so far and I don't expect that to change.

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