By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications
It was May 7, the night before Sammy Watkins was selected fourth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. Head coach Dabo Swinney and assistant coaches Chad Morris and Jeff Scott were with their wives at dinner at a New York City steakhouse. They were joined by former Clemson quarterback Will Proctor and his wife, Fox News broadcaster Ainsley Earhardt.
To no surprise, conversation quickly turned to football. More specifically, to Clemson’s 2014 schedule and the difficulty of playing at Georgia and Florida State within the first three games.
“I pointed out to the table the common threads between our last two wins in Tallahassee, in ’89 and ’06,” said Proctor, referring to the fact the Tigers won in both situations with first-year senior starters. Chris Morocco was under center in Clemson’s 34-23 win in 1989, and in 2006 it was Proctor who led the Tigers to a 27-20 victory.
Clemson’s struggles historically in Tallahassee have been well-documented. But the Tigers aren’t alone. The Seminoles have won nearly 80 percent of their home games inside Doak Campbell Stadium, which opened in 1950.
On Saturday, the Tigers take on the defending national champions in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles own the country’s longest winning streak at 18 games. As it was in 2006, the Tigers enter the showdown with a 1-1 overall record. And just like the ’89 and ’06 meetings, the Tigers will have a first-year senior starter at the quarterback position in Cole Stoudt.
“It’s interesting that the last two times we’ve won down there was with first-year senior starters,” Swinney said. “That’s something Cole can take encouragement from.”
He can also take encouragement by simply flipping on the game tape from that ’06 meeting. Proctor, a Sunshine State native, directed Clemson to a win just one week after the Tigers had suffered a heartbreaker in overtime to Boston College and a young quarterback named Matt Ryan.
While Proctor noted Clemson’s preparation for that particular game in ’06 may not have differed much on the practice field, it certainly did off of it.
“We prepared with the crowd noise at practice by blaring the Warchant over the speakers,” he said. “But I actually put that song on a CD and played it in my car the entire week. I thought it would help me prepare for the environment.”
It certainly did. Behind the running of sophomore James Davis and an efficient passing exhibition from Proctor, the Tigers controlled throughout the ’06 affair. But it wasn’t until the final seconds that the game was decided.
Tied at 20, Clemson got the ball back on its own 15-yard-line with just over two minutes remaining. Davis peeled off a run of 14 yards before Proctor was able to find Aaron Kelly on a slant pass out to midfield.
“At that point there was an opportunity in the game where we had seen they were struggling to line up,” Proctor said. “So we went with a quick count, and we had a wall of blockers for James, and he got all the way inside their five.”
Davis scampered 47 yards on the hurry-up and two plays later, on third and goal, found paydirt behind one of the nastiest blocks in recent Clemson memory. The score occurred with just eight seconds left in the game, lifting the Tigers to victory.
“Thomas Hunter, I’ll never forget it, put one guy over his shoulder and another on his back,” Proctor said. “He punished those two guys. Growing up a Florida State fan, I had circled that one for a long time. To come out with a win was special.”
What was also special was a third-quarter moment when Proctor scored a touchdown on a 20-yard run. ESPN cameras panned immediately into the stands and found his father, Rick, who was to the point of tears.
“We still talk about that moment today,” Proctor said.
He also spoke about the memory with Stoudt. After reaching out to Swinney, he placed a call to Clemson’s current signal-caller on Tuesday of this week.
“I just reassured Cole that he has the tools,” he said. “He’s got a great defense and playmakers around him. I told him stay patient and the opportunities will come. I don’t think I hold some magic blueprint for winning there, but I was able to share some of the takeaways of our success that night.”
And no doubt Swinney has as well. He was on the sidelines that evening as the Tigers’ wide receivers coach, and has been preparing his team for an 8 p.m. showdown in Doak Campbell since the final whistle of the home opener against SC State. And if his Tigers pull off the upset, you can bet one of the first calls he’ll receive will be from Proctor.
“I’ll be watching from afar, wishing I could be there,” Proctor said. “It’d be great if we could come out of it with a win.”
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