Few Clemson fans can forget November 8, 2003, the night the Tigers notched their first victory against Florida State as a conference foe.
Considering Clemson was coming off a humiliating defeat in Winston-Salem and FSU was the No. 3 team in the country, finding someone who believed the upset was going to happen was as rare as a full set of teeth at a West Virginian family reunion.
And even though the impossible became reality, it seemed more like an aberration. After all, the balance of talent was still heavily on the side of FSU.
The win was a fluke, or so it seemed. Clemson has caught lightening in a bottle for a night. Heck, there were even the skeptics who said Daddy let Tommy win on order to keep his job.
All seemed right in the world the following year when the Noles easily won in Tallahassee. The rivalry, if you could call it that, was back to where it was supposed to be ? Clemson merely playing the role of a speed bump on the FSU schedule.
Clemson?s talent level had increased considerably since Tommy West?s last game but they still didn?t have the horses across the board to compete.
Three years later it is a different story. Clemson is as, if not more, talented than the Seminoles. Of course, FSU is not the type of team most grew accustomed to seeing during their run of amazing seasons during the 80?s and 90?s.
The shift in talent is due in some part to their decline into mediocrity but the biggest factor has been Clemson?s ability to sign the type of kids that would have traditionally gone to a school like Florida State.
The Tigers? third straight victory against the former king of the ACC did not signal they have earned a seat at the table of greatness but it did send the message that they are beginning to amass a lot of talent.
Clemson?s offensive woes that served as the catalyst to their late season nose dive last year have been well documented. Stop the run and you stopped the Tigers.
Will Proctor, the man who was once hyped by many as being the who would make folks forget Charlie Whitehurst because he was a better fit for the offense, failed miserably.
Fans were excited entering the season because of the signing of Willy Korn and the emergence of Cullen Harper as a solid leader. The general consensus was production from the QB couldn?t be any worse.
Harper has been in the unenviable position most first-year QBs face. He has had to deal with the talk of the backup being better since shortly after the last play of the Music City Bowl. Not only has he handled the pressure well thus far, he seems to use it as motivation.
Gripes about Harper could be heard during warm-ups Monday night and still continue. Why all the negativity?
He had a pretty good game considering it was his first start and it came against a solid defense. He had very nice touch, showed tremendous poise, and displayed a comfort level needed from a leader.
Maybe the most promising aspect of his performance was he protected the ball. Instead of trying to make plays when being pressured, he lived to fight another down. That?s all you can ask for from your QB when he has weapons like Davis, Spiller, Ford, and others.
His drops, setup, and delivery looked to be very fundamentally sound. He never had a chance to really show off his arm strength but it did appear he has enough arm to make a lot of the 15-20 yard throws Proctor struggled with mightily last season.
The running backs looked as good as most imagined. In fact, James Davis appeared to be a step quicker and a little faster than last year and his blocking has improved. Sadat Chambers logged a few reps in the second half. It was hard to get a feel for how productive he can be but he at least looked comfortable in his new position.
Aaron Kelly finally delivered on the potential the coaches have been raving about for two years. He had some very nice moves in the open field and was extremely physical for someone his size. It?s hard to judge anything after one game but he looks like he could be a physical, go-to receiver much like Kevin Youngblood was just a few years ago.
As for the offensive line, I would say they are still the biggest unknown facing this team. They played well enough against a very good FSU front but there were too many breakdowns to get excited about their potential just yet.
Barry Humphries may have drawn one of the toughest assignments he could have imagined in his first start by having to face Andre Fluellen. He showed his athleticism by pulling on some plays, which is very rare for a center, and making some nice blocks against the guys on the second level.
However, he spent a lot of time in the backfield because he was consistently pushed back at the line of scrimmage. Part of that was who he was facing but a lot of it looked like he needed to use more of his strength by playing lower and with a better first step.
Losing Thomas Austin and Brandon Pilgrim at guard hurt, as it was obvious there is a big drop-off with Bobby Hutchinson in the game. Austin played well and he?ll be a very good lineman by the end of the year as long as he continues to improve.
Chris McDuffie and Barry Richardson worked well together on the left side, which should be expected because both are seniors. Not having a rotation at tackle appeared to wear on Richardson as the game wore on. He looked lazy in the fourth quarter while missing some blocks and not playing aggressively. He has first round talent but has to learn to play up to his potential.
The tight ends have become a central part of the offense under Rob Spence and they showed why Monday night. Brian Linthicum had the first catch of his career, which went for a touchdown, and Michael Palmer fought through an injury to have a good game as a blocker.
There?s no question Durrell Barry has all the talent to be a top notch tight end but he must work on his assignments and blocking if he wants to become a major contributor. If he can tighten up the loose ends, he should become a more integral part of upcoming game plans.
Maybe it was a coincidence or maybe it was an omen that the man many consider to be the greatest defensive player in Clemson history, Jeff Davis, led the team down The Hill. Whatever it was, the defense made The Judge proud.
The front appeared to be the strength of the team heading into the season and they lived up to the billing. Rashaad Jackson was unblockable before leaving the game with an injury and Dorrell Scott clogged the middle all night.
Jock McKissick, Antwon Murchison, and Jarvis Jenkins all had valuable reps spelling the starters. Jenkins certain looks the part as a first-year freshman and should see more playing time as the season progresses and he becomes better adjusted to the college game.
Phillip Merling had a great game that led to him being the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Everyone knew coming into the season that Merling was a powerful rusher but he, too, showed some extra quickness he didn?t have last year.
If Merling is the power guy, then Ricky Sapp is the athletic speed rusher on the other side. He?s not as good against the run as he needs to be at this point but he speed off the edge causes all kinds of havoc for opposing linemen.
Maybe the biggest surprise for the defense was the play of Kevin Alexander. The former linebacker who is now playing Bandit looks to be a combination of Sapp and Merling. He?s fast enough to force ball carriers to the sideline and strong enough to bull through offensive tackles.
Tramaine Billie had a solid return to the lineup after missing last season with an injury. He?s not a prototypical linebacker size-wise but he has tremendous speed that allows Vic Koenning to do a number of different things. Billie even lined up as a defensive end at times and used his speed to generate a good rush.
Nick Watkins has quietly become one of the best players on that side of the ball. He was just as good in traffic as he was in the open field and has the ability to be an all-conference candidate.
Courtney Vincent stepped up to the challenge of being named the starter in the middle with a great game. He was great on blitzes and against the run. There were a few instances were he was lazy in coverage, one of which led to a big gain to Antone Smith out of the backfield, but he should become better in coverage as the season wears on.
Antonio Clay looked a little rusty after sitting out the spring but still has the potential to be a very integral part of the defense. He?ll continue to improve his conditioning and the work out the kinks over the next few weeks to become the Antonio Clay of old.
The secondary was the weak spot before Monday night but if their performance against the Noles was any indication of what?s to come they?ll be a pretty reliable unit.
DeAndre McDaniel is a true freshman the coaches have said needs to be on the field and that was evident early on. Playing most as a nickel back, he was equally impressive as a blitzer and in coverage. He was stuck on an island a couple of times and performed like a veteran.
Corners Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor showed they are physical coverage guys. Although he?s not as big as most corners out there, Chancellor may be the scrappiest guy on the team. They will be challenged more in coverage over the season but they have shown they are great in run support.
Also getting time at corner were Byron Maxwell and Haydrian Lewis. Maxwell is deceptively fast because he runs so effortlessly. He doesn?t look like he?s moving all that fast until you realize how quickly he closes the gap. And like the starters, both showed they aren?t afraid to mix it up with the big boys.
There?s not much to say about Chris Clemmons and Michael Hamlin because so much is already expected of them. Clemmons did show surprising speed on his touchdown saving tackle. He doesn?t receive a lot of publicity because others have grabbed the headlines but he?s one of the leaders of the defense.
Clemson couldn?t have covered a kickoff last year even if the return man had been locked in a phone booth. Enter Mark Buchholz.
The soccer star turned kicker did a wonderful job on kickoffs by showing a strong leg and great hang time. His first couple of kicks deep into the corner couldn?t have been placed any better and he even managed to pop one six yards deep into the end zone. Those are the types of kicks that will make all the difference in the world this year with the starting point now being the 30-yard-line.
The punt team looked a little iffy but it?s nothing that can?t easily be fixed. The block was caused by the punt team getting on the field too late, which led to personal protector Alex Pearson making the wrong call because he didn?t have enough time.
The bad snap was one of those things that?s eventually going to happen. I think it?s been at least three seasons since the Tigers had a bad snap on a punt. The positive is that it didn?t cost Clemson the game and Colin Leonard hopefully has his one bad attempt out of his system.
Jimmy Maners had some very good directional punts and finished the game with three kicks being downed inside the 20-yard-line and a fourth that was a near miss. All things considered, he handled the pressure rather well and had a good game.
The return game should be a tremendous advantage for Clemson with Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller lined up deep. They both can bust one every time the touch it and I like the decision to put them back their on punts. Opposing coaches essentially have to pick their poison when punting.
Offensively, Clemson came out of the gates very strong and really shot themselves in the foot most of the second half. Some very costly penalties negated plays that would have had them in second-and-two or three situations on a couple of occasions and a bad snap nearly cost them a second safety.
Rob Spence had some nice wrinkles to take advantage of Spiller and Davis? abilities. He has been labeled as too conservative but I thought he was aggressive considering he was working with a young line and a new quarterback. He went for a deep ball late in the game when trying to protect the lead and passed on first down when he could?ve run it to milk the clock.
Defensively, the poor tackling that has plagued the unit for some time reared its ugly head at times and led to Smith?s big run down to the one-yard-line. There were a couple of mistakes in coverage by the linebackers but credit should also be given to FSU offensive coordinator for making some great calls to put the linebackers in those situations.
Aside from the two mistakes on the punt team, the special teams had a really good game. One thing that needs to be mentioned is the heady play by Maners to run the ball out of the end zone for a safety on the bad snap. That was a product of good coaching and a solid resolve under pressure.
Any win against a conference opponent is always welcomed but this one was a little sweeter than some because it came against FSU and it puts the Tigers in the driver?s seat to win their division for the time being.
Most importantly, Clemson showed they have reached the level of athleticism that will allow them to compete with anyone on their schedule. If they would have committed the same mistakes just two years ago, they would be 0-1 right now.
A number of aspects remain that need a lot of work but it was a good first step for the Tigers.