Clemson did something Thursday night they had not done in quite some time – they were blown out. The Tigers had lost just six times by a total of 18 points since a 30-10 loss at Virginia on October, 2004.
The drubbing came just five days after a very emotional win over Georgia Tech that had a season’s worth of hype condensed into a week. And even though it was apparent the Tigers suffered from a mental hangover, it was no excuse for losing the way they did.
It was a loss that looked much worse than the final score indicated. It was also a loss that brings into question the mental toughness and leadership of the players. Instead of delivering a message to the rest of the league, in a statement road game late in the season with championship hopes on the line, they fell flat on their faces.
But all hope is not lost.
Losing to a Virginia Tech team who has always played well in Blacksburg on Thursday nights is no reason to throw in the towel. Clemson still has an outside shot of making it to the ACC championship game and they can finish
10-2 by winning their final three games.
It was the most miserable and disappointing offensive performance of the Tommy Bowden era. Aside from their lone scoring drive, they looked downright anemic all night.
They came into the game leading the nation in scoring with over 42 points per contest. They left with just seven on the board and managed to pick up a first down on just 3 of their 13 drives (not including their final, meaningless possession).
Everyone knew coming into the game Bud Foster would do whatever was necessary to shut down Clemson’s running game, and force Will Proctor to win it with his arm. The senior quarterback could not have had a worse night had he tried to throw it left handed.
He finished the night 11-of-28 with one miserable interception and a number of questionable decisions. He routinely misfired when he had receivers open, and even had trouble hitting a stationary target while warming up just before the third quarter. I have never seen a quarterback miss a target at 20 yards while trying to loosen his arm.
He looks extremely uncomfortable as a passer. He seems to rarely set his feet anymore and is forcing more balls than he should. Even though he has not been asked to do as much in the last month, I do not think it has caused him to become rusty. He gets plenty of reps in practice and has been around for five years.
Some have questioned Rob Spence’s play calling because he did not take any shots downfield. A couple of deep balls probably would not have hurt, but Spence essentially had his hands tied because of Proctor’s ineptness.
How could he have expected his quarterback to complete the low percentage passes when he was having trouble connecting on swing passes and outs?
Spence also stuck with the run on first down a majority of the time in the first half – eight of 11 first down plays were runs – but the ground game is what has gotten Clemson this far. When that is your strength, and your quarterback is struggling, you really do not have much of a choice.
Proctor did not get much help in the first half as Tyler Grisham and Aaron Kelly each dropped passes on third down that would have kept drives alive, but the fact remains he did not play well.
Faced with a third down, at the Virginia Tech 25-yard line late in the first half after a fumble recovery, he fumbled the snap back to the Hokies.
Instead of going into halftime with a four point lead or the score tied, Clemson went to the locker room down by three. That was the turning point of the game.
Possibly the worst aspect of Proctor’s performance was his unwillingness to shoulder the blame. He commented after the game that miscommunication with his receivers led to some missed opportunities. Miscommunication was not the cause for his problems, and Bowden said as much on Friday.
The offensive line struggled to get anything going on the ground because Tech had eight and even nine guys in the box throughout the night. It was not one of their better performances against a defense that pursued and tackled extremely well.
All things considered, I did think they did a better than average job of giving Proctor time. They provided an out when he did have to scramble, but it is nearly impossible to operate against a team like Tech when your lack of support leads to a one-dimensional attack.
Also contributing to the offense’s lack of effectiveness was the absence of tight end Thomas Hunter. His blocking was sorely missed because there was a definite drop off with freshmen Michael Palmer and Durrell Barry in there.
They have progressed rather nicely this season, but still have a ways to go before they can match the play of Hunter.
I thought the defense played pretty well in the first half, but they were worn down by the middle of the third quarter because they were on the field so much. Tech had more rushes (58) than Clemson had offensive plays (56).
It did not help that Rashaad Jackson left in the first half with a neck injury. He had been playing as well as anyone on the team against the run.
The Tigers were so worn down by the fourth quarter that seldom used Antwon Murchison saw some action at tackle, because fresh legs were needed.
Clemson also did a horrendous job of tackling and taking good angles. Hokie running back Brandon Ore is an exceptional back, but he was made to look better because of the Tigers’ miscues. Time and again it seemed like he would be stopped for little or no gain, only to pick up five or more yards because Clemson defenders did not get low and wrap up.
Unlike their counterparts, Clemson was not able to stack the box because Sean Glennon had just enough success in the passing game to keep the Tigers honest. He was extremely efficient on the intermediate routes when Clemson did not blitz.
His biggest play came near the end of the third quarter with Clemson down
17-7 and needing a stop. He found a wide open Sam Wheeler for a forty yard gain after Crezdon Butler bit on the play fake.
Instead of forcing a punt and possibly getting decent field position, Tech had the ball on Clemson’s 25-yard line and scored two plays later.
Cole Chason handled the kickoff duties and did a very good job on his two attempts. His first was a touchback and his second was kicked high and deep into the corner. Other than a touchback, it was a nearly perfect attempt.
He did have a much tougher time as a punter. Seven of his 10 kicks were 39 yards or fewer, and he made a divot on one of his attempts for the second consecutive game. Maybe it was the pressure of facing a unit known for blocking punts,, or he just had a bad night, but he has definitely had better outings.
His coverage unit seemed to be slow getting downfield on a few occasions.
Again, maybe they were delaying their releases an extra second or two because protection is so important against Virginia Tech. Regardless, Tech was able to put together a few nice returns that negated some of Chason’s better kicks.
The return game was practically nonexistent. Jacoby Ford failed to field yet another punt that was downed inside the five-yard line. Tech punter Nick Schmitt finished the night with three punts being downed inside the 20-yard line.
Clemson has grown accustomed to losing some close ones over the last couple of years. Those defeats can sometimes be harder to handle and rebound from because they are so emotionally devastating.
That was not the case Thursday. Clemson was thoroughly whipped on both sides of the ball in a game that was tougher on the ego than the heart.
There is nothing good about a loss other than what you can learn from them.
Although the thoughts of how to stop Clemson lurked in the back of the minds of many around the program, few had faced that reality because no one had been able to do it this season.
Now the secret is out and the team has a valuable learning experience under its belt. The question is can Proctor and his supporting cast right the ship?
How they answer will depend on how open they are to learning and looking inside for answers. Clemson is still a very good team with the ability to run the table, but they will not do so if guys like Proctor are not willing to employ a little humility by admitting their mistakes and making the necessary changes.