After devastating defeat to Jackets, all is not lost for Clemson

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The Tigers enjoy an exciting run, make no excuses after their upset, and keep their heads up. (Getty Images)  
The Tigers enjoy an exciting run, make no excuses after their upset, and keep their heads up. (Getty Images)  

ATLANTA -- With Clemson in dire need of a big play if the Tigers had any chance to comeback from a three-touchdown deficit against Georgia Tech, Tigers freshman Sammy Watkins settled under the football.

Watkins, arguably the most electric player in college football, took the kickoff at the Clemson 16. Watkins headed up field, saw a crease of daylight and ... plop!

Watkins was tackled -- by a teammate.

Watkins ran directly into Clemson up-back Joseph Mansa and fell to the turf in the second quarter. That play summed up the Tigers' 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech -- Clemson had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

The loss by the Tigers (ranked No. 6 by AP, No. 5 in the BCS) ended the ACC's final chance to have a league team play in the BCS title game. It is wait ‘til next year -- again -- for the ACC in its never-ending quest to have a team reach the BCS national title game.

"It's what you dream of," said Georgia Tech sophomore cornerback Louis Young, who was among thousands of fans that rushed the field after ruining the Tigers' national title hopes. "You don't get many opportunities to play top five teams."

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Wave after wave of fans approached Young. They gave him hugs, high-fives, slapped him on the shoulder pads or shook his hand. Some wanted to take a photo of him on their cell phone with the scoreboard in the background. Others just wanted to say congratulations. One Tech student asked if his girlfriend could give Young a kiss so he could get a picture of it.

While Young was getting showered with hugs and kisses, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney looked like someone had kicked his dog. Or worse, stolen it.

"Let's not walk around with our heads down like someone stole our dog," Swinney said he told his team afterward. "We're 8-1."

Yes they are. The Tigers still control their destiny in the ACC's Atlantic Division and can clinch it with a win in two weeks against Wake Forest. Then the Tigers would advance to the ACC title game and with a victory there, Clemson would advance to the Orange Bowl where it likely would play the Big East champion.

If that happens the Tigers will be in a BCS bowl -- which before the season would have been considered a huge accomplishment -- but they just won't be in New Orleans playing for the BCS title.

"We can't dwell on it that we won't be going to ‘that game,'" Clemson junior defensive end Malliciah Goodman said.

To have a chance at New Orleans, Clemson had to go 13-0. Not impossible, but not unlikely after how the Tigers had played in their 8-0 start.

Against Georgia Tech, Clemson got off to an impressive start on its first drive, but after that the Yellow Jackets dominated the final 3½ quarters. After covering 67 yards on its opening drive, Clemson was limited to 332 yards in the final 52 minutes.

"We were playing physical with them," Young said. "No one had played them physical."

Georgia Tech's offense also did some damage against Clemson's defense. After two three-and-outs to open the game, Georgia Tech rolled up 443 yards, including 413 yards in the final three quarters

The Yellow Jackets' final drive only covered 58 yards, but took 16 plays and ate up nine minutes and four seconds. On the drive, Georgia Tech converted four consecutive third downs.

"In a nutshell: physically we got whipped," Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.

For the third consecutive game, Clemson fell in an early hole. Against Maryland and North Carolina, the Tigers were able to come back. They even overcame an 18-point third-quarter deficit at Maryland in a 56-45 victory.

Clemson trailed Georgia Tech by 21 at halftime, but after Tech fumbled on third-and-goal inside the 1, the Tigers drove 99 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to pull within 31-17.

Less than five minutes later, Clemson safety Rashard Hall intercepted Georgia Tech's Tevin Washington and returned it to Georgia Tech's 9. The Tigers were threatening to make it a one-score game with more than 10 minutes remaining.

However, on the next play, Watson cut to the inside as quarterback Tajh Boyd threw to the corner of the end zone. The ball floated directly to Georgia Tech's Jemea Thomas for the easy interception with 10:33 remaining

Despite having 42 freshmen on their roster, the Tigers had done exceptionally well holding onto the football. They had only eight turnovers in their first eight games. They committed four on this cold Saturday night in Atlanta. The most damaging was Boyd's fourth quarter interception.

"There was a miscommunication," Swinney said. "That finished us off."

Georgia Tech then went on its 9:04 clock-eating, game-clinching drive that was capped by the student section chanting "overrated" in the final minutes.

"It's been a while since we lost a ball game," Swinney said. "That's a disappointed locker room in there. They [Georgia Tech] just flat-out whipped us, out-executed us and no excuses. We did not execute our plan to win."

Swinney said the Tigers' "next goal" is to win the ACC's Atlantic Division for the second time in three years.

"That's what we've got to do and then you have an opportunity to play for this conference [title]," Swinney said. "If you win this conference, you're going to a BCS [bowl]. If we can do those things consistently, then one day we're going to have that special year where we put it all together."

One day, perhaps. It's just not going to happen this year.

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