CLEMSON - Every young quarterback faces the situation sooner or later.
Needing a score to tie or possibly win the game, the quarterback must drive
his team down the field to take advantage of the opportunity. Be it a field
goal or a touchdown, the fate of the team ultimately rests on his shoulders.
Tommy Bowden talked about just such a situation during the preseason, saying
it was one of the question marks facing junior Willie Simmons as he embarked
on his first season as Clemson's starting quarterback. How Simmons would
handle such pressure in 2002, Bowden wasn't sure.
"You never know for sure how a guy will react until he's actually in that
situation," Bowden said.
Based on the early returns, Simmons would seem to be fine.
Trailing 31-28 late in the fourth quarter Saturday at Georgia, Simmons - with
a hostile crowd of over 86,500 breathing down his neck and a national
television audience watching on ESPN - deftly moved Clemson into position for
what would have been a game-tying 46-yard field goal by Aaron Hunt with less
than 2:00 to go.
Hunt missed the kick, of course, coming up just short, and the Bulldogs held
on for the win.
But the fact that Simmons had the Tigers in position to tie the game will
serve as a confidence booster, both for him and his teammates.
"It's very important to be in that situation to make some critical throws,"
Bowden said. "All of that goes into his computer, and the next time it arises
he'll have that to draw on."
"He's not a complete QB yet...he made too many mistakes. But that (drive) was
one of the pieces of the puzzle you'd like him to be productive in, and he
In reality, there was little to suggest Clemson's offense would go anywhere
but backward when Simmons lined up in the shotgun on his own 38-yard line
with 5:06 to go.
On the Tigers' previous three possessions, Simmons was a combined 0-for-4,
was sacked twice and the offense generated a net of minus 18 yards. During
that time the Bulldogs had turned a 28-21 deficit into a 31-28 lead.
But Simmons had been in similar situations before, just never as a starter.
In 2000 he came off the bench with the Tigers trailing on the road at North
Carolina, 17-0, and engineered a comeback victory. Later that season, also in
relief, he marched Clemson to a go-ahead touchdown with just over 1:00 left
against Georgia Tech, only to see the Yellow Jackets return the favor in the
So when it came time for the first snap, Simmons showed a calm and poise that
belied his starting inexperience.
The first play was a quick screen to J.J. McKelvey that gained just two
yards. Derrick Hamilton ran for nine yards and a first down on the next play,
then Jasmin blew through the middle for 12 yards to the Georgia 39.
Simmons then hit a clutch throw, finding Kevin Youngblood for 13 yards to the
Bulldog 26. Clemson lost three yards on the next play when Jasmin was caught
in the backfield, and Simmons' attempt for Currie on third down fell
That brought on Hunt for the 47-yard attempt to tie the game. But the snap
was high and Hunt didn't connect solidly, leaving the kick just a yard or two
short and allowing Georgia to escape with the win.
Still, Simmons had come through in a clutch situation and given his team a
chance to tie the game. And while he made a few mistakes earlier in the game
- including a poor throw into the endzone which was intercepted, choking off
a potential Clemson scoring drive - Bowden appears confident good things are
going to happen with Simmons at the helm.
"For his first game (as a starter) I thought he did real good," Bowden said.
"There's room for improvement, such as taking sacks and throwing the ball up
in the scoring zone. But he's a smart player. He'll correct them."
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Florence Morning News. He also hosts SportsTalk from 10 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.