It is amazing the difference a few years can make.
Tommy Bowden was a ‘dead man walking’ heading into the fifth annual Bowden Bowl back in 2003. He was 0-for-4 in those games and coming off a devastating 45-17 loss to Wake Forest. The question for many was not if he would be fired, but when.
Nearly four years later his senior class is 3-1 against the Seminoles after notching the Tigers’ first win in Tallahassee since some of the guys on the field were just getting comfortable learning to walk. It was also Tommy Bowden’s fifth win over a top 10 team and the second time he has accomplished that feat against his dad.
For anyone that may have had a few lingering doubts, it was evident Saturday night that Clemson has made significant strides in closing the talent gap.
But as promising as that is, it may not have been the brightest point to come out of the victory. After all, Bowden had promised that would be the case as soon as he was given improved facilities.
The most promising aspect was the Tigers played with a ton of heart and passion Saturday night. They had every reason to quit, especially late in the game, but they found a way to pull one out, when they desperately needed it.
Coming off a heartbreaking double overtime loss with three defensive starters out and two others banged up, things did not look good late in the first half with the Tigers trailing 9-6 after completely dominating for nearly two quarters. But they cashed in on a last minute scoring opportunity for a 14-9 halftime lead.
After taking a 20-9 lead early in the third, the offense bogged down and Florida State used two drives to tie it at 20. The outlook was bleak as momentum swung in favor of the Noles. The stage was set for a meltdown.
Then it happened.
Somewhere from within, Clemson mustered enough fortitude to march 85 yards, in just over two minutes, to take the lead. Call it luck. Call it fate.
What you title it does not matter as long as you realize it had everything to do with heart.
Clemson racked up 350 yards of offense and had three scoring drives of 80 yards or more. Those are impressive numbers against nearly any opponent, darn near unimaginable against a defense as talented as Florida State’s.
Saturday night may have been the coming out party for Will Proctor. In what was likely the most emotional start he will ever have, the senior played with the poise and smarts of a four-year starter. His decision making was excellent and he seemed to get better as the game wore on.
He completed just 16 of 30 passes, but what is not reflected in those numbers is at least two drops and a number of balls he threw away to preserve field position. The box score also does not reflect the touch he put on a number of balls, specifically the big gainer to James Davis and the touchdown to Chansi Stuckey.
Speaking of Stuckey, his drop in the second quarter directly led to a 14-point swing for the Seminoles. What was a sure touchdown for the Tigers, resulted in a blocked field goal being returned for a touchdown just a few plays later.
Is the time ever going to come when he has to quit hoping for a shot at redemption later in the game? Drops such as that one for a player with his ability and experience are simply inexcusable.
Aaron Kelly quietly finished with five catches, none of which were bigger than his grab on the final drive. Drops in similar circumstances have plagued Clemson in the past. I think that catch was just another example of the determination the Tigers showed.
James Davis and the rest of the backs were held in check most of the game.
I do not think that was a big surprise because everyone knew just how good the Florida State run defense has been.
I thought Davis missed a few cuts. In his defense, he has seen very few defenses as quick as Florida State’s and may not be accustomed to making his reads that quickly. That is more of a compliment for their defense as it is a knock on Davis.
One thing that will make the coaches cringe when they see the film is ball security. Davis stuck it out there on the next-to-last play and was a split second away from having it knocked loose. It is great he was giving the extra effort, but you have to play smart, especially in that situation.
I mistakenly predicted a lot of misdirection would give Clemson an advantage, but Florida State was just too fast. Most of Davis’ success came on quick hitters right up the middle. You could tell they respected his ability because he kept them honest all night, which is something Clemson has not had in a back in a long time.
As for the line, they seemed to have the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome.
Their pass protection was above average to excellent. Proctor was not sacked all night and never really got roughed up.
Their run protection was average to below average, probably closer to the latter. They again did a poor job of getting to the second level and allowed too much penetration, which may be a good explanation as to why Davis missed some cuts.
Barry Richardson looked flat out lazy on his run blocking. He played way too high, took some bad angles, and just never seemed to get after it. His sheer size and strength allowed him to have a good night in pass protection.
Of course, it is a tough task for anyone to get by a man that big and quick once he engages.
I noticed much of the same out of Richardson in the Boston College game. It has become evident in my eyes that it is time for Brad Scott to have a “come to Jesus” talk with Big Barry. He is wasting too much talent at this point.
Thomas Hunter, Akeem Robinson, and Alex Pearson did a better job of blocking this week. Hunter and Pearson clearly wanted it more than the Florida State defenders on the final touchdown. Durrell Barry also had his first catch of the season. Maybe that is a sign the coaches are beginning to gain a little confidence in him.
Drew Weatherford passed for 102 yards, which is the same amount they managed to gain on the ground. Considering Weatherford was coming off of a 343-yard performance and a couple of similar outings late last year, holding the Seminoles to three-and-a-half yards per play is a pretty good outing.
That is, of course, if you choose not to listen to those in garnet and gold.
Nearly every talk show and message board is littered with diatribes against Jeff Bowden. No one seems to be giving credit to Clemson’s defense. The loss of three of the most important parts of Vic Koenning’s unit should at least level the playing field for a perceived ineptness in play calling.
Hats off to the Antonio Clay and the rest of the linebackers. Clay played what may have been his best game to date. Although he is not the prototypical middle linebacker in terms of size, I think the move back inside will be very beneficial for him.
He is extremely fast and instinctive. Being on the inside has allowed him to use those assets more because he is spending less time worrying about coverage. He is simply reading and reacting and he looks as comfortable as he has since he stepped on campus.
Nick Watkins was quiet at times, but he made some plays with his speed that will not show up in the statistics. He takes away some cutbacks because he reacts before the line has a chance to get to the second level. The one negative is he needs to tackle better.
Kavell Conner, Josh Miller, and Maurice Nelson played like guys with little experience. There were times they looked good and times where they looked green. Miller over pursued on a few occasions and Conner allowed himself to get caught up in traffic. All things considered, they probably performed as well or better than expected.
The front four performed much better after their letdown against Boston College. Rashaad Jackson was disrupting things all night and had a huge stop on third-and-short and a batted pass. Even some of the younger guys like Etta Etta-Tawo and Jock McKissick altered a few plays.
Florida State had little running room up the middle and did very little when the starters were in the game. The reserves gave up some yards, but that is why they are not starting. They will continue to come along and should have things shored up by latter part of the season.
After receiving some criticism on various fronts, including my pregame article, Gaines Adams showed up to play. It was evident at times his shoulder was a problem, but he played through it and registered at least two sacks. There is no better compliment for a player than to say he stepped up when he was needed the most.
Also give credit to Phillip Merling. He elevated his level of play and showed why he and Adams can be one of the best tandems in the country when they want to. The only real weakness I saw from either of them was they did not maintain containment at times. It is great that they are getting in there, but they cannot let things get outside.
The beneficiaries of the play from seven were the guys in the secondary.
Their job was made a little easier but they also answered the call.
I hate to sound repetitive week after week, but Duane Coleman deserves a game ball for his toughness and heart. He loves to stick his nose in there with the big boys and did so a few times Saturday, but he has also improved his coverage skills tremendously.
Chris Chancellor got the nod at the other corner. I thought it was a much-deserved reward after watching him play. Yes, he made a few mistakes and is undersized, but he gives maximum effort and plays with pretty solid fundamentals.
As well as I thought Chancellor played, he is going to have a battle on his hands throughout the season in the form of Crezdon Butler. Butler has the size and loves to hit. He gave glimpses Saturday night of why he is a star in the making. I think it is safe to say Koenning is feeling a little better about things on that side as long as they both continue to develop.
Safeties Roy Walker, Chris Clemmons, Chris Russell, and C.J. Gaddis all had their moments as well. Clemmons forced a fumble in the first half and Gaddis had at least two big hits. Gaddis seems much more comfortable at safety and should remain there with the emergence of Butler and Chancellor.
I do not think there is one reason as to why the field goal unit has struggled the last two weeks. There are three things I have seen.
First, the block against Boston College and the first one against Florida State was a breakdown in protection. It appears the gap between the tight end and tackle was exploited both times.
Secondly, the final block last week came off the outside. That is usually a sign that the kicker is taking too long. However, I think part of the problem was the line’s splits were too tight in an effort to compensate for the previous blocks.
The wing is taught to maintain placement of his outside leg while stepping down to block the gap between he and the tight end. Maintaining that placement forces the outside defender to run wide, thus creating a more rounded attack and buying a few extra tenths of a second.
Finally, there is no question Jad Dean is taking too long. Even if there was a shorter corner as a result of smaller splits, the block should not have been as clean as it was. Dean has to correct his approach immediately.
The coverage unit had a better week thanks to Dean getting more hang time and placing the ball better when he could not get it into the end zone.
Again, line drives to the five-yard line will not get it done.
Cole Chason took a minor step back this week. He did manage a 39.4 yard average on seven kicks with a 33-yarder mixed in. He needs to alleviate the short kicks and return to consistently hitting them 40 yards or more.
Rob Spence and Vic Koenning had great game plans.
As I stated in the pregame article, I thought Spence would utilize more misdirection and naked boots to neutralize Florida State’s speed. It became evident early on that was a better theory on paper. He went right at the Seminoles when he really needed some yards and it worked.
Florida State was very well prepared for the screens that were so effective against them last year, so Spence adjusted and ran a couple of deep patterns after faking the screen. One resulted in Stuckey’s touchdown and at least one other resulted in a dropped touchdown.
It should also be noted that the naked boot that led to Proctor’s touchdown was a great call because he had been setting it up with a number of zone runs. Proctor sucked in the end and linebacker Lawrence Timmons with a masterful fake, and the rest is history.
Spence also deserves credit for waiting to call the quick snap when he really needed it. He talked with the staff and Proctor about it at half time, but waited on pulling the trigger until the most opportune time. It was a call that probably would have worked just once. Considering the offense bogged down during a stretch in the second half, his patience may be the most overlooked aspect of the call.
Koenning appeared to confuse Weatherford throughout the night. Whether it was game planning or an adjustment early on, he somewhat conceded the middle of the field in terms of run support because the front four was doing such a good job.
He routinely had two linebackers lined up on the offensive tackles or wider with a third either at the line of scrimmage or split wide to help with the underneath zones.
I also noticed at least two or three occasions in which he had three safeties lined up deep. My guess is he was willing to give up some of the underneath stuff in exchange for taking away the big play. I liked the plan because of Florida State’s big play receivers and their inability to run the ball.
It was a definite must-win situation for the Tigers and they came through.
With a majority of conference play ahead and two of their biggest tests of the year out of the way, they are back in the thick of things in the division race.
It was a huge win for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the fact they have newfound life in the battle to get to Jacksonville.
When you consider Florida State picked up nine points on special teams and only 11 from their offense, you begin to realize just how dominating the Tigers were. Only one score came as a result of good field position. The other three touchdown drives were a combination of great execution and play calling.
In the past Clemson would have had to rely on a couple of big breaks and/or lucky bounces to win such a game. That was not the case this year. Clemson was on the short end of the stick in those situations and still won.
The Tigers outplayed and outcoached the Seminoles. Is it a sign of things to come? No one really knows. It is a question that can only be answered over time. However, if I were a betting man, I would say it is a good indication the tide is turning.