No Quit in Clemson (from an NU journalist)

567-6468standaloneprod_affiliate74No Quit in Clemson
Commentary: Tigers battle back from midseason swoon in way Nebraska’s 2007 squad never did

by Samuel McKewon
December 19, 2008

COURTESY OF CLEMSON FOOTBALL

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper
It was near the end of another Nebraska football practice, and one of the beat writers had a question: What was the compelling storyline of NU’s Gator Bowl game against Clemson?

He asked, of course, because he didn’t see one. CU was 7-5. The Tigers had little history with the Cornhuskers. Even though Clemson had some big names on its team, it wasn’t Florida State. And if you didn’t know already, reporters suffered through FSU withdrawal just like fans did.

I bristled at the question. I don’t like it. I never do. There are, of course, lots of storylines surrounding the Gator Bowl. Whether they are suitably “compelling” for the ESPN set, or some magazine’s football analyst, is immaterial to the Nebraska fan. Thank goodness movies aren’t judged as worthy or unworthy by those standards. We’d be on “Saw 178” by now.

At any rate, I provided a number of ideas – Bo and Dabo squaring off as new coaches, the Huskers getting a second crack at the ACC, Joe Ganz finishing out his career on national TV on New Year’s Day, where a Nebraska quarterback belongs – but the best didn’t come to me until this week, talking with Clemson players.

The storyline is this: When given the opportunity to fold and dive head first into the tank like Nebraska did in 2007, Clemson did just the opposite, cutting its dead coaching weight halfway through the year, finishing strong and pummeling rival South Carolina in the last game of the season to earn an unlikely Gator Bowl bid to play NU.

“We had so much adversity to go through to get to where we are,” CU quarterback Cullen Harper said. “We had to deal with the criticism of ‘Clemson let us down again.’ It was tough. Then we went through the midseason coaching change, and that was extremely tough.

“But we kept on playing despite all the negative stuff. We knew if we came together and played the way we were capable of playing, everything would take care of itself.

The Tigers were ranked No. 9 in the preseason polls. A couple of fools – certainly not this one – labeled them ready for a run at the national title. CU running backs James Davis and CJ Spiller were the best tandem in college football. Harper was a feel-good story right out of the Joe Ganz playbook. And Clemson’s defense always puts up a good fight.

But the Tigers bombed in their opening game against Alabama, a team that turned out to be better than anybody thought at the time. From there, Clemson won three in a row, but then lost tight games to Maryland and Wake Forest.

That’s when things got messy.

Current coach Tommy Bowden, on his final life of nine, so to speak, in Death Valley, decided to bench Harper after the Thursday night loss to Wake. Harper had been playing behind an inexperienced offensive line and struggling with a shoulder injury.

“It was just a hard time,” Harper said. “Because I knew I had the talent and the ability to help this team.”

Harper’s teammates blamed offensive coordinator Rob Spence, not Harper, for the mess. At the time, Spiller said “some people wanted the offensive coordinator fired.”

Oh, that happened, in a sense, when Bowden decided to suddenly resign four days after the Wake game. He announced his resignation to the media, walked away from the podium and directly into his office, where he shut the door and did not take questions.

“It surprised us all,” Harper said.

Receivers Coach Dabo Swinney took over as the interim coach. Then Swinney fired Spence the same day he got the job and put 29-year-old tight ends coach Billy Napier in charge of the offense.

Now that’s how you kill the source of player apathy. Imagine if Bill Callahan – or, heck, Steve Pederson – had taken half those steps last season, instead of circling the wagons and putting on a happy face.

“It didn’t take long for us to start believing in Coach Swinney,” Harper said. “He brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He’s got everything you look for in a head coach. He’s somebody you want to play hard for.”

Swinney immediately went about restoring CU’s relationship with the fans. In his first game as coach, he walked up to “Howard’s Rock,” placed both hands on it and kissed it to the roar of 85,000 fans. Bowden didn’t even know he was supposed to touch it when he began at Clemson.

The new coach also created a “Tiger Walk,” similar to Nebraska’s pregame journey into the Osborne Complex, and told Clemson fans about it. It was a 400-yard walk from the buses to the locker room. Orange covered every step of it.

“Fans had to be there about 9:45 in the rain,” Harper said. “But they were all there. Now we do it every home game. It shows you how much they care when they show up at 9:45 on a rainy morning to form a line for us to walk through.”

Harper got his job back and the Tigers started “taking more shots downfield.” Napier had the offense using Spiller and Davis more in space, where they could make their own plays. Clemson didn’t start suddenly scoring 40 points a game, but the Tigers did get some of their big-play magic back.

The offensive line gelled, guard Thomas Austin said, and the seniors took charge.

“We were 3-3 and the season was going downhill quickly,” Austin said. “I was worried we were going to play uninspired football that our seniors would be like ‘we’re going to the NFL’ or ‘this is my last season, no big deal.’ But from the minute Coach Swinney took over, he unified us, and senior leadership really stepped up and said ‘We’re not going to let thing get away from us.’ We didn’t throw everything away. We had a lot on the table still.”

It all culminated in a 31-14 thrashing of rival South Carolina, a game in which Clemson dominated every aspect of the game.

“That’s one of the best memories I have,” safety Michael Hamlin said. “I got calls from people after that. They were like, “How’d you lose five games?’”

It’s a much better question than “how’d you lose seven?” Don’t you think?

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