on August 1, 2008 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

The Tommy Bowden era- part deux

Last week in this spot, we looked back at the early years (1999-2002) of Tommy Bowden’s tenure at Clemson in terms of turning points – those moments that helped define not only the past and the present, but also the future of the program.

This week, we’ll continue on that trek, dealing with the past five years of the Tigers under Bowden and the moments in time – be they on the field or off – that got the program to where it stands today, less than a month before the kickoff of the 2008 season.

Clemson entered the 2003 season coming off a 7-6 campaign and a humiliating 55-15 loss to Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl. Things didn’t start much better for the Tigers, as they were trounced 30-0 by an 11th-ranked Georgia team to open the season.

Though Clemson wasn’t ranked entering a single game that season – it did make the polls after its bowl game – we’ll start the final part of this list with two wins that were landmarks in terms of the Tigers competing with the big boys.

The tide starts to turn in the ‘Bowden Bowl.’

Entering this Nov. 8, 2003 date against Florida State, Clemson was coming off a devastating 45-17 loss at the hands of then-perennial ACC cellar dweller Wake Forest, and the hot-seat talk had reached an all-time high during Bowden’s tenure. The Tigers came into this game having lost 11 straight to the Seminoles, who were 8-1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation at the time, and the prospects of another blowout loss looked pretty good.

However, Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst made big play after big play and capped off a 65-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge just before the half to send the teams to the locker room with Clemson leading 13-0.

The Tigers added to that lead in the third quarter, as Whitehurst found Derrick Hamilton on a 58-yard scoring strike late in the period to give Clemson a 23-3 lead. The Tigers ultimately won 26-10.

Though FSU had already clinched a tie for its 11th league title in 12 seasons, Clemson had its first win over the ’Noles since 1989 – Danny Ford’s final season at the helm.

The Tigers have since won three of four, including the last three in a row, in the series.

63-17.

It’s a score that college football fans in the Palmetto State won’t forget for a long time, regardless of which side of the rivalry their allegiance falls on.

The Tigers jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead over the rival Gamecocks in this Nov. 22, 2003 game, and ultimately rolled up their most points ever in the then-101-game series with USC.

Whitehurst completed 18-of-32 passes for 302 yards and tied a school record with four TD passes as Bowden beat Lou Holtz for the fourth time in five years.

While the win gave Clemson its third straight win after the debacle against Wake, it also handed the Gamecocks their fourth straight loss to close the regular season and their second straight 5-7 finish. At the time, the Gamecocks were 0-9 over the past two seasons when needing a win to become bowl eligible.

Clemson ultimately beat a sixth-ranked Tennessee team in the Peach Bowl to finish the season ranked for the first time in three years.

Duke’s Brooks nail a bomb at the buzzer.

There are many moments from the 2004 season – almost universally viewed by Tiger fans as a big disappointment given the momentum their team was riding to close 2003 – that are symbolic of the season, with a 30-10 loss at Virginia on Oct. 7 to cap a four-game losing streak perhaps the most notable. No moment, however, symbolized Clemson’s frustration in 2004 better than Duke kicker Matt Brooks converting a career-long 53-yard field goal as time expired to give the lowly Blue Devils a 16-13 win over the Tigers.

The kick capped off a wild rally in the final two minutes, as Duke scored 10 points in the final 91 seconds to win the game.

Whitehurst was 12-of-26 for only 117 yards and two interceptions, the latter of which set up the game-winning kick and helped turn the game from simply an unimpressive potential win to perhaps the most negative turning point in the Bowden era.

The next week, Clemson won the 600th game in school history over South Carolina, 29-7, to become bowl eligible. That game is remembered more, however, for the ugly brawl that led both Clemson and South Carolina to opt out of playing in the postseason.

Tigers fall in three overtimes to Miami.

Clemson entered this Sept. 17, 2005 game 5-0 all-time in overtime games, including a 24-17 win over the ’Canes at the Orange Bowl the previous year.

The stadium-shaking game ended with a 36-30 loss for the Tigers in triple overtime, as Whitehurst was intercepted by future first-round pick Kenny Phillips to end the game.

Clemson lost again in overtime the following week – 16-13 to Boston College – and currently the Tigers are riding a four-game losing streak in games decided in extra time.

Those two losses were part of a three-game losing streak early in the 2005 season for Clemson and kept an overall very good season from being truly special, as the Tigers capped a 9-4 season with a win over Colorado in the Champs Sports Bowl.

C.J. Spiller picks Clemson.

Some would argue that James Davis’ signing with the Tigers the previous year was the first big turning point in taking Clemson’s recruiting to a national level, and it was indeed also a big steppingstone.

However, after years of watching the Florida schools land the top prospect in South Carolina on National Signing Day, this time it was the other way around, as on Feb. 1, 2006, Spiller – a lifelong Seminole fan who lived about 30 minutes outside of Gainesville – stood up in front of a crowd gathered at his school and announced, “In the fall of 2006, I will attend Clemson University.”

It was a sign that times they were a-changin’ and Clemson was starting to recruit with the big boys – as evidenced by this past year’s recruiting class, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation by ESPN. Interestingly enough, the 2008 class included Jamie Harper, who was – like Spiller – ranked by most services as the top running back in Florida.

‘Thunder and Lightning’ introduce themselves to the nation.

With ESPN’s College GameDay on campus for the first time, this Oct. 21, 2006 meeting between the No. 12 Tigers and the No. 13 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets was Davis’ and Spiller’s coming-out party.

Davis rushed for a career-high 216 yards, including two scores, and Spiller had a 50-yard touchdown run and a 50-yard touchdown catch as the Tigers rolled to a 31-7 win that had many national analysts proclaiming them one of the nation’s top teams.

Also that night, Clemson held Tech star Calvin Johnson – a future No. 2-overall pick in the NFL Draft – without a reception.

All in all, things couldn’t have gone much better in Tigertown that day.

Unfortunately, after a 7-1 start to that point in the season, Clemson finished the year by losing four out of its last five games – perhaps the most dramatic of the ups-and-downs that have defined the Bowden era.

The drop.

With Clemson in position to make a trip to its first-ever ACC Championship Game on Nov. 18, 2007, Boston College star QB Matt Ryan connected with Rich Gunnell for a 43-yard TD pass with 1:46 to go that gave the Eagles a 20-17 lead.

It was the play of the game, except for Tiger fans, who probably remember a play that wasn’t made even more.

The Tigers had one more shot to drive for the game-winning score, and quarterback Cullen Harper found Aaron Kelly – arguably the league’s best receiver – behind the defense down the sideline. But the perfectly placed spiral slipped between Kelly’s arms inside the BC five-yard line, and the Tigers fell one play short of the ACC title game for the third year in a row.

Kelly would redeem himself the following week, making seemingly every big play – including a crucial fourth-down catch in the fourth quarter – to help the Tigers rally to beat South Carolina, but that drop still sticks out as a big-time missed opportunity for Clemson, and perhaps the reason many critics still have doubts about the Tigers’ chances to get over the proverbial hump and win the ACC this season.

Davis, Kelly return.

After the 2007 season, the Tigers awaited the decisions of three key players – Davis, Kelly and Phillip Merling – as to whether or not they would declare for the NFL Draft after their junior years.

Initially, many assumed all three would probably return, but as things played themselves out, reports began to surface that each of the three had decided otherwise.

Kelly eventually changed his mind, and Davis ultimately followed suit – at the very last minute – though Merling decided to go ahead with his decision and was drafted by the Dolphins with the first pick of the second round.

The blow that was the loss of Merling was softened somewhat by the signing of Da’Quan Bowers – the top strongside defensive end recruit, and arguably the top prospect overall, in the nation. In fact, the entire 2008 recruiting class probably deserves some mention here as well, as it is easily the most complete class in Bowden’s tenure.

Nonetheless, the return of Davis and Kelly are a huge reason many have pegged the Tigers as clear-cut favorites to win the ACC, and perhaps as a dark-horse contender for the national title.