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

Tigers trying to stay focused after loss

CLEMSON — What’s up with soon-not-to-be No. 9 Clemson?

Considered the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference with expectations of a national championship run, the Tigers were humbled by No. 24 Alabama 34-10 on Saturday night and rode home searching for answers.

Clemson coach Tommy Bowden had signed a rich, new contract in the offseason, largely because university leaders saw the Tigers closing in on the big time. But midway through the fourth quarter, most of the orange-clad Tiger fans had left the Georgia Dome with a disappointment they’ve felt several times during Bowden’s 10 seasons.

The coach was as surprised as they were how easily Alabama dominated Clemson’s offensive and defensive lines — the Tigers managed zero rushing yards compared to the Tide’s 239. Still, there’s much left for Clemson to achieve and it’s Bowden’s job to remind his players.

“Lets see how we do at the end of the year,” Bowden said Sunday. “We played one game, and it was a big game. We got a few big games left.”

Perhaps none, though, could define the 2008 Tigers as much as this one. Beat all the Dukes, North Carolina States and Citadels you want and it won’t wash out the bad taste left from Alabama.

The Tigers have a history of losing in the biggest spots under Bowden. A win over a middle-of-the-pack Maryland in 2006 or Georgia Tech last fall would’ve put Clemson in the ACC’s title game.

Finally, though, this was to be the season that shut up Clemson’s critics.

Most of their stars turned down the NFL for a senior shot at success, and all talked about trophies bigger than the conference title. All came up remarkably short against Alabama.

Quarterback Cullen Harper, talked up as a Heisman contender this summer, didn’t throw a TD pass, was sacked three times and got picked off.

The “Thunder and Lightning” duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller accounted for 20 yards on eight carries. Record-setting receiver Aaron Kelly was held to less than 6 yards a catch.

Clemson’s defense was just as sorry. Alabama runners Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee combined for 186 yards. Crimson Tide tight end Nick Walker looked surprised at how wide open he was in the end zone on his 4-yard TD catch in the second quarter that gave Alabama a 20-3 lead. “That’s because I was,” he said.

There was little for Bowden to do afterward execpt acknowledge the beatdown, congratulate the Crimson Tide and move on.

He’ll tell the Tigers when they meet Monday it was only last fall when Virginia Tech was outmuscled early by national champion LSU, 48-7. “I think (Tech) finished 11-3 and I think they won the conference last year,” Bowden said. “Just talking to your players, you can’t quit after one game.”

Bowden’s coaching opponent, Alabama’s Nick Saban, had his hands full trying to dampen what’s sure to be runaway expectations from a fan base eager to “Roll, Tide, Roll.”

“Our players can enjoy this for 24 hours,” Saban said. “But then we still have to prepare for the season.”

For Clemson, that truly starts in two weeks.

The Tigers play against in-state school Citadel, a Football Championship Subdivision team, to start their home season Saturday. Then comes the ACC opener, also at home, against struggling N.C. State, which was defeated 34-0 by South Carolina last Thursday night.

There’s another FCS team in South Carolina State and then Maryland before the Tigers’ next test, a Thursday night contest Oct. 9 at No. 23 Wake Forest.

“We have to keep fighting this season,” said Davis, Clemson’s senior with a chance at a third 1,000-yard season. “We still have goals to reach. We still have a chance to go to the ACC championship and the national championship.”

The Tigers have bounced back from ugly looking early blowouts under Bowden before. Clemson opened 2003 with a 30-0 home loss to Georgia, yet finished a 9-4 season that included victories over top-10 teams in Florida State and Tennessee.

Bowden will also challenge his player’s pride after the embarrassing defeat.

How does Bowden account for such a poor performance when the Tigers had eight months to prepare? “You got to take human error into it,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t predict human error, human psyche.”

Right now, there’s no doubt Clemson’s psyche is low.

“The biggest thing with all the negative publicity, and rightfully so based on the performance,” Bowden says, “is I’ve got to talk to the team not to believe it and ‘Let’s go out and perform.’”