CLEMSON — As he looked back at last year’s 6-5 record, Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst tried to figure out what went wrong.
Why was the offense so anemic? Why couldn’t they run the football? Why did he go from 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2003 to 7 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2004?
For those answers, Whitehurst went back into the past. One afternoon sitting by himself, he popped in the tape of the Florida State game from 2003. He was curious to see what the Tigers did then, compared to what happened a year later. Why did it all go so wrong so fast?
It was in that game the Clemson football program had its finest hour in the last 14 years. The Tigers could do no wrong against the No. 3 ranked Seminoles as the Tiger offense totaled 425 yards in a 26-10 victory. Whitehurst’s performance – 17 of 27 for 272 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Hamilton – earned him national recognition and launched him into the status as one of the country’s best quarterbacks. The win propelled a four-game win streak to close out the year, including a 63-17 win at rival South Carolina and a 27-14 victory against No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.
“We were a lot better football team, and I was a better quarterback then than I was a year later,” said Whitehurst about reviewing that Florida State game. “It kind of gives you a little bit of confidence. When you play poorly over and over and over, it becomes routine. It is kind of like you are not very good anymore.
“When you look back and you see the potential that is there, and not just for me, but for the whole offense, it gives you a little bit of hope and inspiration to get to that level again.”
Whitehurst feels there is no doubt the Tigers can get back that swagger they had at the end of the 2003 season. There were glimpses of it last year. After starting the year 1-4, Clemson reeled out four straight wins again, including a stunning 24-17 overtime victory at No. 10 Miami. It appeared as if they were back. All that laid in front was a bad football team in Duke and rival South Carolina. Win them both and another New Year’s Day Bowl seemed likely.
However, that didn’t happen. The Tigers stumbled at Duke and were beat on a 53-yard field goal as time expired. Duke scored 10 points in the final 1:21 to beat Clemson for the first time under Tommy Bowden and for just the second time in the last 10 years. It was one of Whitehurst’s worst days as a quarterback as he completed just 12 of 27 passes for 117 yards and two interceptions. His last interception went over the head of a slipping Michael Collins and into the arms of safety Deonto McCormick, setting up Matt Brook’s game-winning field goal.
“The biggest thing is to just cut down on the interceptions and the yards and touchdowns are going to come,” he said. “The interceptions are the biggest thing.”
As Whitehurst enters his senior season, he enters it with a cautious outlook. No longer is there any Heisman talk surrounding him, and the Tigers are picked to finish fourth in the new Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division.
“Those things don’t matter to me really. They both have their pros and their cons,” he said. “A lot of times I approach it as I’m not as good as people think I am.
“That’s the way I think. It motivates me to play hard and to play well. I know I’m a good player, but sometimes I feel like I still have to prove that. I’m glad that my brain works that way.”
And so is his head coach. Bowden says it is good that Whitehurst feels he has to get better, but he said at times last year he unnecessarily put too much of the blame on himself.
“I hope he has learned from that,” said Bowden. “Charlie is his own worse critic and though that can be good at times, I think last year he put too much on his shoulders.
“He tried to carry the team by himself there for a little while and I think that was why you saw him trying to force the issue and throw the ball down field.”
Whitehurst and Bowden are both excited about the year and what Whitehurst might be able to do under new offensive coordinator Rob Spence. The former Toledo coach has a good track record with a quarterback in the first year of his system.
Tavares Bolden set a then MAC record for completion percentage (68.7) in Spence’s first year with the Rockets, and in 2003 Bruce Gradkowski was second in the nation in completion percentage (71.2) as a first-year starter. In each of his four seasons at Toledo, Spence’s quarterbacks ranked in the Top 16 in passing efficiency.
“I look for Charlie to have an outstanding final year,” said Bowden. “There is not that big a difference in the schemes we have run here since Charlie has been at Clemson and what Rob does.
“Quarterbacks have had high-completion percentage under Coach Spence, and I look for Charlie to make an improvement in that area and his efficiency… And that will hopefully translate into more production for our offense and victories.”
Whitehurst proved during his sophomore season he can put up those type numbers. He completed 62 percent of his passes that year for 3,561 yards. He said last year, the offense got to vanilla at times in formations and that played a part in why his production dropped to 52 percent completion percentage and 2,067 passing yards.
“There are a couple of differences in last year’s offense to this one,” he said. “I think we were very basic in formations in the past. We weren’t trying to fool anybody, there wasn’t that much motion. It was let our better players beat your players.
“But we didn’t have better players. This league is very competitive and everybody is kind of all the same. We are going to try to outsmart people from the beginning this year. The formations are going to be complex, there is going to be motion, the tight end will be used a lot. One, two, three tight end sets.
“There is definitely a high priority on running the football and being successful in that.”
If those things happen, he will not have to look to the past to see how good the Tigers were, instead, Whitehurst will be looking at a team that could just make a little history themselves.