Hokies Are Special

Cullen Harper

CLEMSON – Tommy Bowden assured the media earlier in the week that more mistakes on special teams were in the future for the Clemson football team, basically saying no team is perfect. Even he couldn't have envisioned this.

"We're not going to play perfect," he said on Sunday. "It'll be something next year too, I'll go ahead and warn you before. There'll be something that will break down on special teams.

"There'll be some special teams problems our remaining seven games too," he said. "I don't know what they'll be, but there'll be one or two."

Bowden couldn't have been more right.

The No. 22 Tigers couldn't cover kickoffs or punts and ultimately yielded three non-offensive touchdowns as No. 15 Virginia Tech rolled to the 41-23 victory on national television Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

The Hokies (5-1, 2-0 ACC) lived up to their reputation of fielding one of the best special teams in the nation. Meanwhile, Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden will be left to answer more questions about the ineptitude of his.

Virginia Tech scored a touchdown on an interception return, punt return and kickoff return and just one on offense.

The results caused Bowden to say he was "doing a poor job of coaching."

"We made it a lot more difficult on ourselves," Bowden said. "If you take away the 14 points (on special teams) then it's a whole different game."

On just the third play, an errant pass by quarterback Cullen Harper went off the finger tips of wide receiver Tyler Grisham and into the waiting arms of D.J. Parker, who returned it 32 yards for a touchdown to give Virginia Tech a quick 7-0.

Harper, who finished with a school record of 38 completions on a school record of 66 attempts, had two interceptions and a lost a fumble.

"It's a game of inches and it was about six inches behind the receiver," he said. "If I put that ball six inches forward then (Grisham) might have scored. Then the same with the second (interception), if it was three inches higher then it's a big play. Those are the difference between big plays and interceptions in this league."

Nine minutes later, Eddie Royal returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown to give the Hokies a 17-0 lead with 4:48 left to play in the first quarter.

The very next time Clemson (4-2, 2-2 ACC) punted, Royal returned the punt 76 yards for a touchdown, but thankfully for the Tigers, the touchdown was called back due to a Virginia Tech penalty.

"I've got my best open field tacklers running down there free and they just don't make the play," Bowden said. "It's very frustrating because we've got the very best guys we've got out there. We've tried different schemes and different scenarios since last year. …

"We practiced during the spring, which we didn't do the year before. We can't invest any more time. We're going to have to continue to look at personnel and see if we can't get the right guys. But we've used just about everybody we have on the team."

What allowed Virginia Tech to be so successful on the punt return is the Tigers spent extra time during the week working on punt protection because of the Hokies' prowess for blocking them.

By keeping so many people close to the center, it meant that the two outside players (gunners) were left to make the tackle by themselves rather than having a few others help in the process, said Clemson running backs coach Andre Powell, who is also in charge of the kickoff coverage and punt coverage.

"Our gunners were one-on-one and we got to make better plays and we've got to do a better job of trying to get them into position to make plays," he said.

If that weren't bad enough, following a 33-yard, second-quarter field goal by Tigers kicker Mark Buchholz to make it 17-3, Victor Harris returned the kickoff 100 yards for another Virginia Tech touchdown.

What is befuddling about the touchdown is that Clemson called a timeout just before the kickoff because it didn't have the proper players on the field for the kickoff.

At that point, the Hokies held a 24-3 lead without having scored an offensive touchdown.

"I can truly say we emphasize (special teams)," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "It really is a third of preparation: offense, defense and special teams. We try to get the best people possible on special teams. The only time we ever stop during practice is to do special teams work.

"If we are stopping practice for special teams, then it is really important."

Following a Clemson safety that made it 24-5, Virginia Tech managed to score the first of only two offensive touchdowns on a 21-yard pass from quarterback Tyrod Taylor to Justin Harper to make it 31-5.

It was the first time all season a Hokies receiver had made a touchdown reception.

But from that point, the Tigers played reasonably well as offensive coordinator Rob Spence was forced to open up the playbook and take more chances downfield, although at times the offense still found the going extremely tough.

By the end of halftime Harper had thrown the ball 36 times. By the end of the third quarter, he had tossed it 50 times. When it was said and done, he was 38-of-66 for 372 yards with two touchdowns.

With so much throwing, the Tigers abandoned the running game, which was probably a good thing as tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined to carry it 12 times for 12 yards.

Clemson managed to cut the lead to 34-23, but that's as close as it would get as the Hokies added another touchdown following an onsides kick to ice the game and the win.

"I'd say special teams was a huge impact," Powell said. "We thought coming into the game that if we win on special teams we win the game. We didn't get the job done."

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