Dec. 16, 2008
Overview Clemson finished the 2008 regular season with four wins in its last five games, including victories over ACC Atlantic Division Champion Boston College and state rival South Carolina. It was the first win for the Clemson program over Boston College since 1958. Clemson’s 4-1 overall record in the last five games tied for the best among the 12 ACC teams, and the 3-1 league record over the second half of the season tied for the second best league mark.
Clemson made this run behind new head coach Tommy Bowden, who was in his 10th year as Clemson head coach when the season started and had taken the Tigers to a bowl game eight of the last nine years, resigned on October 13 after a 3-3 overall start and 1-2 mark in the ACC. Swinney was hired on an interim basis for the remainder of the regular season, then had the interim tag removed by Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips on December 1.
It was a strong finish for Swinney who coached all six of his games to close the regular season against teams from the ACC and SEC. His last two wins, over Virginia and South Carolina, were against two experience coaches who had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers.
Clemson is a team that has a veteran group of offensive skill position players. The Tigers have a 3000-yard rusher, a 2,000-yard rusher, a 2,500-yard receiver, and two more 1000-yard receivers to go with a 5,000-yard quarterback. Running back James Davis is ranked second in Clemson history in career rushing yards with 3,855 and needs 112 in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl to become the school’s career rushing leader, while receiver Aaron Kelly has 2,659 career receiving yards to rank second in school history and needs just 23 against Nebraska to become Clemson’s career leader in that category.
The defense is led by safety Michael Hamlin, who is the only ACC player with at least 90 tackles and six interceptions this year. Clemson is outstanding in terms of pass defense at it ranks in the top 10 in the nation in total interceptions, pass efficiency defense, and pass defense. Clemson’s most impressive number may be in terms of yards per pass attempt allowed. Clemson allows just 5.12 yards per pass attempt, second best in the nation behind Southern California. It is the best figure by a Clemson team since 1963.
The Tigers are 10th in the nation and first in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing just 16.58 points per game. That figure is actually better than first glance because four touchdowns have been scored on interception returns and blocked punts when the defense was not on the field. The defense has really allowed just 14.25 points per game. In terms of total defense, the Tigers are ranked 17th, allowing 294.83 yards per game.
One of the reasons for Clemson’s improvement over the course of the season has been the injury front. Over the course of the season, Clemson has had 42 different players start over the 22 offensive and defensive positions, as 13 different players have missed a total of 45 games. That includes eight starters who missed 33 total games. In 2007, Clemson had three starters miss a combined seven games. The offensive line had seven different starting combinations over the first nine games, but has settled on a lineup now. The current combination is 4-0 this season.
But most of those players are healthy now and Clemson will be without just three players for the Gator Bowl, defensive tackle Jamie Cumbie, offensive guard Barry Humphries and defensive end Ricky Sapp. It still should be pointed out that all of those players would be frontline players if they were healthy. Sapp is still tied for the team lead in tackles for loss.
The key statistics for Clemson this year have been turnover margin and field position. Clemson has a 5-0 record this year when winning the turnover margin stat, including a 3-0 record under Swinney. Clemson was 7-0 this year when it has a field position advantage (average start) and 0-5 when it loses the field position stat.
Offense Clemson is an offense that features veteran skill position players and a young offensive line. The Tigers averaged 339 yards per game in total offense, 120.5 rushing and 218.8 passing. Again, turnovers have been a key. Over the last three games, all Clemson wins, the Tigers had just three total turnovers. Over the first nine games, Clemson had 24 turnovers.
Cullen Harper is Clemson’s starting quarterback, a position he has held the last two years and led the Tigers to a 16-8 record. The graduate has completed 204 of 323 passes this year for 2395 yards and 11 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. His 129.3 passing efficiency is second best in the ACC. He has a 63.2 completion percentage for the year, just below his 64.4 career rate that is best in Clemson history.
Harper had some shoulder problems during the season and had surgery on Sunday, October 19, an open date week for the Tigers. Since the surgery he has led the Tigers to a 4-1 record and had a passing efficiency rate of 139 and a completion percentage of 66 percent. His yards per attempt has increased from 6.94 for the first seven games to 8.06 for the last five.
For his career, Harper has established 26 Clemson records and ranks first in school history in completion percentage, second in passing efficiency, third in touchdown passes and fourth in passing yardage.
Aaron Kelly is Harper’s favorite receiver. The 6-5 native of Alpharetta, GA who received his diploma from Clemson on December 18, is the ACC’s career reception leader with 226, and is Clemson’s career reception touchdown leader with 19, a record that had lasted since 1951 until he set the mark with a game winning catch against Boston College on November 1.
Kelly has 61 receptions for 648 yards and three scores this year. His production has increased since Swinney took over as 33 of his 61 catches and 386 of his 648 yards have been recorded over the last six games. He needs just 23 receiving yards to become Clemson’s career leader in that area also, as Terry Smith had 2681 over his four years compared to Kelly’s current total of 2659.
Harper has other options in addition to Kelly, as two other receivers have at least 1000 career yards, plus running back C.J. Spiller is just 89 receiving yards from the magic number.
Jacoby Ford has had his best year as a pass catcher with 50 receptions for 598 yards and three scores. The junior had just 32 career receptions entering this year. He is a breakaway threat as he showed in the South Carolina game when he caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Harper in Clemson’s 31-14 win. Ford is also an outstanding return man and rusher when called upon, as he has 1047 all-purpose yards for the season, second on the team. He has a career rushing average of 9.4 yards per carry on 38 rushes. In 2006 as a freshman, he was the only player in the nation with a punt return and kickoff return for scores of 90 yards or more.
Tyler Grisham is a senior who has 131 career receptions, 11th in Clemson history. Grisham had 60 catches last year when Ford was injured, so his numbers have dropped a bit this year, but he still has 36 receptions for 366 yards and a score. He is the best blocking wide receiver Clemson has had in a number of years and has had over 60 knockdown blocks each of the last two seasons.
Clemson has had strong production from its tight end position. Michael Palmer, a junior who has been a first-team All-ACC academic team member over his career, has the most receptions with 12 for 160 yards and three scores. Durell Barry caught a touchdown pass against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl in 2006, while Akeem Robinson is an outstanding blocking tight end who will play in his 51st career game when the Tigers meet Nebraska.
Clemson’s running game features the “Thunder & Lightning” combination of James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Over the last three years they have combined for 5294 rushing yards and 58 rushing touchdowns. Davis is ranked second in Clemson history in career rushing, while Spiller, a junior, is ninth. Both are in the top four in school history in all-purpose running.
Davis is a senior who will play in his final game as a Tiger in the Gator Bowl. He needs 112 rushing yards to become the school’s career leader, an achievement he hopes to reach on his birthday (Jan. 1). Ironically, that was the same total his buddy Spiller had against Auburn in the 2008 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Davis also has a chance to become Clemson’s career leader in touchdowns, as he has 49 and the record is 50 by Travis Zachery, who played for Clemson in the Gator Bowl in 2000.
Davis is Clemson’s leading rusher with 725 yards on 159 carries and he has 11 rushing touchdowns. He is on pace to become the first Clemson running back to lead the Tigers in rushing four straight years. He was the MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl against Colorado as a freshman in 2005 when he gained 150 yards on 28 attempts.
Spiller has not started a game this year, but could be considered the MVP of Clemson’s offense this year. The native of Lake Butler, FL, leads the ACC in all-purpose running with 144.4 yards per game. He needs just 114 all-purpose running yards to become Clemson’s career leader and he has 30 career touchdowns, 20 rushing, seven receiving and three via kickoff returns.
Spiller is second on the team in rushing with 612 yards on 109 attempts, a 5.6 average. He has seven rushing touchdowns and 11 total touchdowns this season. He has added 430 yards receiving on 30 catches, and that is a Clemson record for receiving yards in a season by a running back. He also threw a touchdown pass at Virginia, the only score of the game in Clemson’s 13-3 victory.
Spiller was at his best in the win over Boston College when he had a career high 242 all-purpose rushing yards, including 105 receiving. His 64-yard kickoff return changed the momentum of the game in the second half. Spiller was named first-team All-ACC specialist and second team running back this year.
Clemson’s offensive line has made significant improvement over the course of the season. The unit had to replace four starters from last year when the season began, then had injuries to four different players within the first six games to players who would have been starters. At one point Clemson started three freshmen in the offensive line, the first time that has happened since 1943.
But, offensive line coach Brad Scott has finally found a healthy combination. Clemson had seven different offensive line combinations over the first nine games, but has now had the same lineup for the last three. And wouldn’t you know it, Clemson has won the last three games! The offensive line had its best performance in the season finale when the Tigers rushed for 184 yards against a South Carolina defense that entered the game in the top 10 in the nation in total defense.
Thomas Austin is the leader of the offensive line from a starting guard position. He actually started seven games at center and five at guard this year. He leads the team in knockdown blocks with 89.5 and was the highest graded offensive lineman in seven of the 12 games. What is most impressive is his three ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week selections, tied for the most in the ACC. He was a second-team All-ACC center selection.
The other starting guard is freshman Mason Cloy, who has started each of the last 11 games. Cloy ranks second on the team in knockdown blocks with 53 and was named a first-team Freshman All-American by College Football News.
Chris Hairston is Clemson’s starting left tackle. A victim of some injuries during the year, Hairston has started nine games and played in 10 this year, and has an 81.4 average film grade from the Tigers coaches, second best on the team. He had 36.5 knockdowns.
Joining Hairston at starting tackle is Landon Walker, a red-shirt freshman who has grown up in a hurry. Walker has started nine games and has been on the field for 614 snaps, second to Austin among offensive linemen. His dad was a member of the 1981 Clemson team that played Nebraska in the only other meeting between the two schools.
The top story on the offensive line might belong to center Bobby Hutchinson. The only senior on Clemson’s offensive line, Hutchinson was supposed to start the season as a student-assistant coach. But when injuries hit the Tigers line, he came out of retirement and has now started six games, including four Clemson wins. He has 38.5 knockdown blocks for the year, including seven in the season finale against South Carolina. He has been a starter in all four of Swinney’s wins as Clemson head coach.
Defense While Clemson’s offensive skill position players get most of the headlines, it has been Clemson’s defense that has recorded the higher national rankings. As stated above, Clemson ranks in the top 10 in the nation in pass defense and scoring defense. They will obviously be tested by Nebraska’s fine aerial attach. Clemson will be without regular season defensive coordinator Vic Koenning who is now at Kansas State. David Blackwell and Ron West will coordinate the defense for the Gator Bowl.
Clemson’s veteran starting secondary includes two seniors and two juniors. The four players have started each of the last 25 games together and the four players have a combined 36 career interceptions, 109 career passes defended and 134 combined starts.
Hamlin is the leader of this group with six interceptions and 102 tackles, leading to career totals of 14 interceptions and 318 tackles. The graduate has 42 career starts under his belt, including three bowl games. He has 29 tackles in the last two bowl games combined.
The safety from Timmonsville, SC has 18 career takeaways (14 interceptions and four fumble recoveries) and needs just one in the bowl game to tie Terry Kinard’s Clemson career record of 19 set between 1978-82. Kinard was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001. Hamlin has at least one interception in three straight games and a pick against Nebraska would tie the Clemson record for consecutive games with a pick.
Joining Hamlin at a safety is Chris Clemons, another graduate, who hails from the state of Florida. Clemons has 313 career tackles and has 38 starts under his belt. He will join two other Clemson seniors in setting the school record for games played when he participates in his 51st game when the Tigers meet Nebraska. Clemons has started each of the last 38 games at safety for the Tigers. He is already the first Clemson football player in history to record at least one tackle in 50 consecutive games.
Clemson has a pair of juniors manning the cornerback positions. Clemson gave up just 23 pass plays of 20 yards or more and just 12 touchdown passes in 12 games while picking off 18 interceptions. Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler had a lot to do with those numbers. Chancellor has four interceptions this year, including two against South Carolina in the final regular season game. Butler has three interceptions and 49 tackles to rank sixth on the team in tackles.
Clemson has a deep secondary and will get contributions in the bowl game from Byron Maxwell and Marcus Gilchrist. Maxwell is the top special teams tackler and has 48 tackles for the year as a reserve cornerback, while Gilchrist has 18 tackles.
Clemson was supposed to have a veteran defensive line, but in August starter and team leader Rashaad Jackson suffered a knee injury and did not appear in a game until November 1. Since his return, Clemson is 4-1. He has 10 tackles, including four tackles for loss in those five games. Dorell Scott has also missed time due to injury, but the senior defensive tackle has 36 tackles from a starting position in 11 games. He was a preseason Outland Trophy candidate.
Jamie Cumbie. Jenkins is a native of Clemson and he has pleased his hometown fans with 36 tackles, including 10 for losses. He is tied for first on the team in tackles for loss and was a second team sophomore All-American according to College Football News.
Clemson will start Da’Quan Bowers and Kevin Alexander at the defensive end positions. Bowers came to Clemson as the number-one rated overall prospect in the country by ESPN.com. He has had a solid season with 41 tackles to rank first on the team among the front four linemen. He also leads the team in quarterback pressures with 14.
Alexander has started nine of the games and has 32 stops. Clemson will be without its top pass rusher for this game in Ricky Sapp. He had 28 tackles, including 10 for loss, in the first 10 games he played before he was lost for the season on November 22 with a torn ACL.
Clemson has a young group of linebackers. Junior Kavell Conner leads the Clemson team in tackles this year with 114 and he has led the team in that category in a team best five games.
Brandon Maye is the fourth overall tackler on the team, as the native of Alabama has 83 stops for the year, including four tackles for loss. He had 12 tackles against Alabama, most ever by a Clemson freshman in his first game. He was named a second-team Freshman All-American by The Sporting News and College Football News. Sophomore DeAndre McDaniel is an active strongside linebacker with 69 stops to rank fifth on the team. Scotty Cooper started four games at that position earlier in the season and has 27 stops.
Special Teams Clemson has had its best season in years in terms of special teams. Giving up punt returns and kickoff returns for scores had been a problem in recent years, but under the watchful eye of special teams coordinator Andre Powell, Clemson led the ACC in kickoff return coverage for the first time since they started keeping the statistic at the conference level. Opponents average start after a kickoff was their own 24, while Clemson’s average start was its own 32.
C.J. Spiller ranks second in the ACC and 10th in the nation in kickoff return average with a 27.9 average and has three career kickoff returns for touchdowns, including one this year in the opener against Alabama. Spiller is also third in the ACC in punt returns with a 9.1 average. Jacoby Ford also has a touchdown return in each category over his career.
The leader of the kick coverage teams has been Tyler Grisham, and wide receiver Kevin Alexander, have also excelled in this area.
Mark Buchholz has made 15-20 field goals for the year and is a perfect 37-37 on extra points. In his two seasons as the placekicker, Buchholz has made a Clemson record 85 consecutive extra points. Buchholz was also a starter on the Clemson soccer team in 2007, but this year he has concentrated just on football.
Jimmy Maners has been the punter most of the year and has a 40.5 average, leading to a net of 37.3. He has had seven games with at least a 40-yard average, including a 46.7 figure in the win over South Carolina. His career average of 41.80 is fourth best in Clemson history and 16th best among all active Division I kickers.
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