It was a day that could not have been scripted any better for the Tiger nation.
Things kicked off with a bang shortly after 10:00 when the Game Day crew began their live broadcast by announcing it was the best crowd they have seen since airing from on-campus locations.
Over the next two hours Clemson received its fair share of publicity as the crowd grew and became more boisterous. The show ended with roars from the thousands in attendance as Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit picked the Tigers to win.
Fans then spent the next seven or so hours tailgating on a picture perfect day that seemed to have been tailor made by the football gods.
Then, with a national television audience on hand and hopes of an ACC championship still lingering despite a Boston College win, the Tigers staked their claim as possibly one of the best one loss teams in the country by completely dominating Georgia Tech.
And as if they were not enough, the Game Day crew practically aired a live recruiting video for the staff as the guys had James Davis and C.J. Spiller on the set for a Q&A session.
Despite leading the nation in scoring and ranking in the top five in rushing, very little was said about Rob Spence and his offense coming into the game. Instead, most of the talk seemed to focus on Tech defensive coordinator John Tenuta and his attacking group of defenders.
It was a foregone conclusion for many that Will Proctor would have to have a big night through the air because Clemson would not be able to muster much of an attack on the ground. And when Roman Fry – the man who entered the game as Clemson’s best lineman – went down with a season ending injury on the third play of the game, things seemed to get a little tougher.
Spence threw the passing game out the window and had his offense ram the ball right down the throat of the Yellow Jackets’ defense on their way to averaging 8.4 yards per carry. Seventy percent of their offensive snaps were running plays, with a large majority of those being between the tackles.
It was good, old-fashioned football at its finest.
As is the case with nearly all great offensive performances, it all began with the play of the offensive line. Chris McDuffie stepped in for Fry and had a great game. He showed great footwork, looked very comfortable when pulling, and threw some key blocks that sprung big plays. The greatest aspect of his play was the line did not seem to loose any of the cohesiveness they have built throughout the season.
Also helping to fill the void was Brandon Pilgrim. He looked a little better fundamentally, probably because he has much more experience, and he also had a great block on one of Davis’ long runs. The downside was he gave the defense a free shot on Proctor just before the half and is not as overwhelming of a blocker as Fry or McDuffie.
Enough really cannot be said for the line. On a number of occasions one man blocked two players by simply driving a defender into another. Even when Tech put eight in the box the line was blowing open holes you could have seemingly walked a mule through.
What about all the blitzes and movement is a signature of a Tenuta defense? They picked those up as if they knew what was coming, is a testament to the effectiveness of the film study done by the staff and players.
The beneficiaries, of course, were Davis and Spiller. Davis went for a career high 216 yards and two touchdowns on just 21 carries. Think about that for just a second.
He averaged over 10 yards per carry against a coordinator who had given up over 100 yards of team rushing in just 27 of the 56 games played while he has been at Tech. Davis surpassed that mark on just two runs.
Not bad for a guy who looked to be out of the game with a shoulder injury in early in the first half. Going into the game everyone knew Davis was a workhorse with great vision and the ability to run through tackles. Saturday night he proved he was a true competitor who deserves all the respect in the world.
I had my reservations about how much Spiller would contribute coming into the season. There was no question he was talented enough but it is hard for a true freshman to make an impact, especially behind the likes of a player like Davis.
Spiller more than proved his worth as the second phase of a dynamic one-two punch. His 50-yard touchdown reception which he left two Tech defenders grasping at air will be shown for some time and rightfully so. But it was his 50-yard touchdown run that left me speechless.
That run showed me just how much his vision has developed over the course of eight games. After looking timid at times earlier in the season, he looked like a trusted veteran as he exploded through the hole, made a slight cut, and gained an amazing amount of separation on his way to pay dirt.
The unheralded hero in the backfield was fullback Alex Pearson. He flat out gets after it as a blocker and almost appears to get some sense of pleasure out of banging heads play after play. He took out two guys on Davis’ last touchdown.
The receivers did not have very many opportunities on the night. Jacoby Ford showed very good concentration and hands on the ball he caught on the sideline with the defender breaking in front of him as the ball arrived.
Tyler Grisham and Aaron Kelly each had a big catch on nearly identical patterns but their biggest contributions also came as blockers. Grisham had a block to break Davis on his first long gainer and Kelly sealed off the defensive end on Davis’ final score. The receiver as a whole blocked well all night.
The only negative for the group was La’Donte Harris’ deflection that resulted in an interception. Had Harris made the catch, Clemson would have gained a first down and likely put points on the board.
The bad news for the tight ends was Thomas Hunter left the game in the first half with an injury. The good news was Akeem Robinson, Michael Palmer, and Durrell Barry all picked up the slack. Palmer and Barry each blocked well and seem to have progressed rather nicely since the beginning of the season.
Will Proctor did not have the best of nights as a passer but managed the game extremely well. He threw a horrible pass to Ford Clemson’s lone bubble screen and never could connect with Kelly on the deep balls.
In his defense, the deep balls are very low percentage passes and Tech had good coverage. Those passes were meant to keep the defense honest with hopes of maybe catching them sleeping for a big play. However, he under threw nearly every one of them and missed to the inside.
Those are the type of passes that really need to hit the receivers in stride. At the very least, they need to be thrown to the outside so a guy like Kelly can use his height to his advantage.
Vic Koenning received the game ball from Tommy Bowden and rightfully so. Not only did he have a great game plan, he was able to get his guys to execute it to near perfection.
Going into the game I said the tackles needed to have a big game and they did. Rashaad Jackson, Jock McKissick, Dorrell Scott, and Donnell Clark plugged holes and blew up blockers all night. Rashaad Jackson was the one guy that really stood out.
When they were not knifing their way through blocks, they were forcing double teams that kept the offensive line off the linebackers.
What they did best was collapse the middle on passing plays. I do not remember Ball being able to scramble up the middle one time all night. That allowed the ends to come harder and gave the linebackers and defensive backs time to recover when he did take off.
Speaking of the ends, I left the game thinking Gaines Adams has switched his jersey to #9 and changed his last name to Ga, at least that is all I could see most of the night because the Tech players were holding him so much.
He and Phillip Merling absolutely destroyed the Tech tackles all night. Adams recorded a sack in a school record sixth straight game and Merling got a good push time and again. Mansfield Wrotto and Andrew Gardner are probably lying in a dark corner in the fetal position sucking their thumbs right now.
Antonio Clay seemed to be omnipresent all night. He used his speed and football instincts to finish with 11 tackles. Nick Watkins and Maurice Nelson may have done their best job of tackling all year and chipped in to shut down any hopes Tech had of establishing a running game.
Koenning and David Blackwell deserve a lot of the credit for Nelson’s play. He is not the best athlete in the unit but the group has experienced very little drop off since the loss of Tramaine Billie and Anthony Waters.
Kavell Connor picked up some good reps during the night and seems to be evolving into a solid backup. On one passing play he exploded through Tashard Choice, nearly knocking him into Ball as he got rid of it. He did not get the sack but he more than disrupted play.
Calvin Johnson was held without a catch for the fist time in his career. Much of the talk has been about how Clemson doubled him nearly all night but I never really saw much of that.
Instead, Koenning’s plan seem to focus more on creating enough pressure to disrupt passing lanes and Ball’s ability to zero in on his favorite receiver. The front did their part and the secondary helped out by not allowing Johnson to run free. They reacted as he moved from zone to zone and always had someone round him.
C.J. Gaddis had his best game as a corner. He did fall as one receiver made his cut, which has been a problem for him this year, but played solidly the remainder of the game against the run and pass.
Crezdon Butler had excellent coverage on the two deep balls thrown his way. His tip on the first resulted in a fluke touchdown on a great catch by James Johnson. He was in a nearly identical position on the second and came away with the pick. He has shown an ability to be a physical run stopper all year but Saturday night showed he is maturing as a pass defender.
Duane Coleman was caught napping a couple of times and was fortunate to have not given up a touchdown. He did do a good job of coming back when Ball scrambled and forced him to stop short of the sticks when it appeared he would get a first down.
Safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemmons provided excellent support over the top and kept Tech from hitting the big play, which is something they have relied on much of the year. Even when Johnson appeared to come open across the middle they were over the top waiting to make a play.
Sadat Chambers received a number of reps as a nickel back. He is the perfect guy for those situations because he has the speed to act as a safety but is physical enough to line up as a linebacker, which he did a number of times.
As a whole, it may have been Clemson’s best special teams performance all season.
Jad Dean was solid on all of his extra points and his lone field goal. His times were good and he had good height on all of his kicks. His first kickoff was deep into the end zone and all but one of the others had good hang time. His coverage unit also did a better job of shedding blocks and maintaining their lanes.
Bowden went ballistic on his coverage unit on the last kickoff. I am not sure if it was because they were offsides on the preceding kick or he saw something he did not like coverage wise. Regardless, it was good to see him get emotional even with the game in hand because that unit has struggled mightily.
Cole Chason may have had the best game of his career. He had great hang times and distance all night. His first punt was awful but he luckily got another shot at it because of a penalty. After watching a recorded version, it appeared that punt may have been tipped by Chris Russell as he tried to block his man.
He and C.J. Gaddis struggled all night as the wings. The one thing those guys cannot do is let their men get an inside release. Russell did that twice and Gaddis let his man come untouched once on a punt that probably should have been blocked.
The return game was held in check all night because of pooch kicks and good punts. The staff did elect to put Tyler Grisham back on punts as somewhat of an upback. I like the idea because the corners have struggled blocking the gunners but Grisham needs to do a better job.
Clemson put together its best all-around effort of the year. They looked like a team deserving of their current top ten ranking.
The game plans on both sides of the ball were well thought out and executed to near perfection. As well as the guys played, the staff deserves a big pat on the back for coming through when Tech had two weeks to prepare.
Bowden said for years that he had to have facilities to be competitive. Many griped and complained that he was searching for excuses but it has become very evident that he knew what he was doing.
Work on the West End Zone started three years ago and the dividends are now showing on the field. The last three recruiting classes are a big reason why this team has been able to withstand so many key injuries. Clemson was without five starters – six if you count Hunter -and they never seemed to miss a beat.
Because of the depth that is now in place, Clemson was able to come through when they needed it the most. Saturday’s win developed even more confidence and gave them a ton of national exposure with the ESPN crew in town.
Aside from the injuries to Hunter and Fry, Bowden and his staff could not have asked for more. Everything came together at once to make it a day that will not be forgotten for some time to come.