Memorable moments: Kicks missed, made and more close calls in Clemson’s toughest games


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CJ Spiller almost single-handedly carried Clemson to its first ACC title since 1991 in 2009.
CJ Spiller almost single-handedly carried Clemson to its first ACC title since 1991 in 2009.

Sometimes the tough losses sting a little more than the wins bring joy. But oftentimes those kind of games propel a program forward -- and few teams are on the level of Tiger football currently.

With some extra time this offseason, we’re looking back through the colorful history of Clemson football, and today, we’re ripping off the band-aid of the tougher results in that span.

(For happier memories, check out the most dominant performances and odd games from Clemson history)

What happened?: These are the games that ended with a memorable kick -- and 100 percent of the credit or blame doesn’t fall on these specialists. The kickers are often just the ones we remember.

A particularly memorable - and lengthy clutch-make - came from Kevin Butler in a matchup of the No. 2 Tigers and No. 20 Bulldogs in 1984. After falling behind initially, Georgia came back from a two-TD deficit and had possession late in a 23-23 game. The Bulldogs barely had to cross the 50 for a game-winner, where the spot rested just behind midfield on Butler’s then-SEC-best, 60-yard field goal with 11 seconds left.

The game's end certainly left some questions, however, as Clemson’s Terrance Roulhac raced up the sidelines on the kickoff and to the Georgia 37, stepping out of bounds seemingly before the clock ran out. Even drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty that would’ve made a game-tying attempt easily within reach. Instead, Georgia fans rushed the field as the clock hit zero on the stadium clock and the referees determined that was the correct call. Tigers placekicker Donald Igwebuike had already hit two field goals in the game and finished that season as the nation’s leader in FG percentage made.

The first Bowden Bowl in 1999 between dad Bobby, of FSU, and son, Tommy, of Clemson, featured the other side of a memorable field goal attempt. Tommy’s Tigers were largely the aggressor before a record-Death Valley crowd (86,092) with trick plays in the mix to take a 14-3 halftime lead. The Chris Weinke-led Seminoles came back to take the lead, and with a couple minutes left, a backup QB in (Woody Dantzler for an injured Brandon Streeter) and one timeout, Bowden played for the tie on 4th-and-1 in Seminole territory. FSU’s Tay Cody came off the edge to get just enough of Tony Lazzara’s 41-yard attempt as it went wide left and short. The Seminoles closed out the win in the closest call of FSU’s national championship season.

Another wide left attempt marked the Palmetto Bowl rivalry in 2006. Down 31-28 in Death Valley, Clemson got the ball back with 7:21 to go and 80 yards from a game-winning score. The Tigers methodically moved down the field -- much in thanks to senior running back Reggie Merriweather, whose only rushing attempts of the game for 23 yards and had the Clemson faithful chanting his name in the late-going. With Merriweather taken off the field, however, the drive stalled and a sack on QB Will Proctor pushed Clemson back to its 22, where Jad Dean’s attempt on the left hash would stay that direction and off-the-mark.

The start of the Dabo Swinney era had its fair share of painful moments with the kicking game in the Tigers’ last losing season, 2010. The first one came at Auburn, where redshirt freshman Chandler Catanzaro was thrown on the hot-seat in game three. Down 27-24 in overtime, a third-and-5 throw from the bruised-and-battered Kyle Parker went just off the fingertips of Jaron Brown for a potential game-winner in overtime. Catanzaro’s first short FG attempt then went through the uprights, but a snap infraction was called, pushing it back to 32 yards and his next try from the left hashmark stayed left. Auburn went on to a national title that campaign.

In a game seemingly-destined for overtime later that season, Clemson-FSU flipped on another long-distance kick in Doak Campbell Stadium. Catanzaro hit a game-tying attempt with 53 seconds left and the division-champ Seminoles’ final possession stalled at the Clemson 37, with three seconds left. Dustin Hopkins then jettisoned his 55-yard attempt well over the uprights as the clock hit zero to clinch a 16-13 victory.

What happened?: The common thread to these games is an opponent ranked in the top-10, and with this particular story, a defeat.

Close to 40 players from the 1977 Clemson-Notre Dame game went on to the NFL eventually, where Joe Montana led the No. 5 Fighting Irish from down 17-7 in the fourth quarter to a 21-17 triumph. Montana punched in the two deciding scores on runs, including one drive that overcame penalties and spanned over 100 yards gained (119). The Tigers earned so much respect nationally from the effort, however, that they didn’t drop in the polls (No. 15).

The 1984 Clemson-South Carolina matchup saw one of the better teams in Gamecocks history travel to Death Valley. The Danny Ford-led Tigers' early lead held much of the game on No. 9 South Carolina but faltered late. The Gamecocks drove 84 yards in the final minutes to tie things up, but Scott Hagler missed the ensuing extra point -- only for a flag (12 men on the field) to set up the re-try and game-winner. It was South Carolina’s first win at Memorial Stadium since 1970. Two years later, Hagler and Clemson’s Rusty Seyle -- on a 60-yard attempt -- would each miss in the final moments that rendered the last tie in the series (21-all).

Clemson and Florida State’s 1988 meeting was the first matchup of two top-10 opponents at Death Valley and the heavyweights battled to the finish -- Bowden resorting to trickery for the final edge. The Tigers had gotten wind of a trick play that was coming and gameplanned for it, but in a punt formation and the line of scrimmage the Seminoles' 21 late, FSU’s Leroy Butler still snuck out of the backfield on the play and glided down the field to set up FSU’s game-winning field goal:

Another memorable Clemson-FSU game wasn’t close at all in 2000, where Tommy Bowden’s Tigers came into the late-season meeting ranked No. 10 nationally. The 54-7 beatdown by the No. 4 ‘Noles was summed up well in this 98-yard TD connection from Weinke to Snoop Minnis:

The first top-10 meeting in the history of Clemson-South Carolina swung the Gamecocks’ way in 2013, 31-17 at Williams-Brice, after six Tiger turnovers -- four in the fourth quarter. The death-knell came when Clemson was set to get the ball back while down a touchdown with 5:18 left, but the ensuing punt return was fumbled by Adam Humphries after a strip, setting up a Gamecocks game-clinching score.

The losses have been few in the Dabo Swinney era lately, but Deshaun Watson’s heroics came up just short in the 2015 season’s title-game matchup with Alabama. Watson set a championship-game record with 478 yards, accounting for four touchdowns with one interception in the 45-40 defeat. He connected with Hunter Renfrow for seven receptions for 88 yards and two of those touchdowns.

Tied at 24 in the fourth quarter, Alabama’s Nick Saban opted for a mini-pooch kick that was easily recovered by the Crimson Tide to swing momentum. From there, Alabama tight end OJ Howard was lost again for another big-play TD (and later on a big-play that extended the game-sealing drive) and Kenyan Drake went 95 yards on a kick return TD before the clock ran out on Watson and company. It was a heavyweight bout, and little did we know, the best in the ACC-SEC series was yet to come in early 2017.

What happened?: The Clemson-Georgia Tech series in the 00s featured quite a few curious moments.

The 2004 matchup in Clemson was a coming-out party for ACC legend Calvin Johnson, who totaled eight catches for 127 yards and three TDs in his second collegiate game. The Tigers led by 10 twice in the final five minutes, but after Johnson won a couple one-on-one battles in the end zone -- Clemson’s offense couldn’t close out the win. A punt snap fell well short of its destination with 17 seconds left and gifted the Yellow Jackets the ball in Clemson territory -- and Johnson was there again for the game-winning TD reception.

Dubious holding calls on Thomas Austin played prominent roles in key plays over two more losses, a 21-17 2018 defeat in Swinney’s first game as head coach stunting a drive with potential late on third down, and another flag in 2009 that called back a big fourth-quarter play shortly before Georgia Tech's game-winning field goal. The Yellow Jackets also scored a TD early on in the game on a trick play that was deemed illegal later.

Their 2009 ACC Championship matchup, which would later be vacated by the NCAA, saw neither team punt and both sides top 300 rushing yards -- Tech scoring on a 15-yard run from Jonathan Dwyer with 1:20 left for the 39-34 result.

Though just a bump in the road of an ACC title season, the Yellow Jackets stung again in 2011, knocking off a No. 5-ranked and 8-0 Clemson team in Atlanta, 31-17, after a big night from QB Tevin Washington (176 rushing yards).

What happened?: One of the more interesting what-ifs in Clemson football history is: What would've happened if Aaron Kelly hauled in a game-winner over Boston College to clinch the school’s first division title in 2007? That 2008 Alabama opener, which we’ll get to in a second, was looming for Bowden either way, however.

Matt Ryan and the Eagles went up 20-17 in the final minutes on a 43-yard TD connection. ‘Finish the job’ was a team motto for the Tigers that season, and after moving the ball past midfield, Cullen Harper and Kelly came oh-so-close to that. Harper stepped up in the pocket and tossed a beautiful ball, which bounced off Kelly’s hands to his chest to the ground. Later with under 10 seconds left, Harper took a sack that made a game-tying field goal improbable and Mark Buchholz's 54-yarder fell well short.

Returning key playmakers from the 2007 run, Clemson entered a 2018 Georgia Dome-opener with Alabama and second-year coach Nick Saban as the No. 9 team in the country. The Crimson Tide forced a fumble on Clemson’s second offensive play (in a recruiting promise heard 'round the world to freshman Jamie Harper) and Alabama’s dominance on that side of the ball held true all game to a 34-10 win. The Tigers, which had the Thunder & Lightning combo of CJ Spiller and James Davis, were held to zero rushing yards and 5.5 yards per pass.

Alabama went on to an undefeated regular-season before falling in the SEC title game to Tim Tebow's Florida Gators. Clemson dropped two of its next five games, including a 12-7 Thursday-nighter at Wake Forest after a bye week in Bowden’s final game as coach.

What happened?: There were a lot of good, building-block moments in the 2011 season for Swinney’s Tigers. The 2012 Orange Bowl is more memorable now for just how easily it cleared the way for Brent Venables’ route to Clemson.

A bowl-record 70 points were surrendered to West Virginia, after 31 first downs over 589 total yards. After his last game as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele’s analysis on his unit’s performance was succinct: “Ass-kicked.”

Fast-forwarding a bit, the last two defeats in the Clemson-FSU series stand out for different reasons. In 2013, Clemson sought to break the stadium-noise record versus the ‘Noles, however, the eventual national champs, powered by Heisman winner Jameis Winston, left Memorial Stadium pretty quiet after a 51-14 win.

With Deshaun Watson still splitting time with Cole Stoudt, Florida State faced a QB quandary of its own in 2014 -- Winston suspended that week for violating a school-conduct policy. With the game all square at 17 late, a Jadar Johnson interception in FSU territory set Clemson up for a shot at the win. It wasn't meant to be though, as former walk-on RB CJ Davidson was stripped two plays later to keep things tied at the end of regulation and the Tigers were stuffed on fourth down in overtime before a Karlos Williams game-winning TD.

What are your memories from some of these games? What are some other games that stick out?

(Stories from Clemson SID and more outlets, including Clemson University Football Vault; compiled by Brandon Rink)

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