ATLANTA – All season, Cullen Harper has been about as good as a quarterback can possibly be. Time after time, he made the big throws in crucial situations. Sometimes they were caught and sometimes they weren’t, but he always lived up to his end of the bargain.
That’s why it was so shocking to see him and No. 15 Clemson have the game they did after having a month to prepare for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and No. 22 Auburn.
Harper, the driving force of the offense, struggled from the very outset with his passing and accuracy and in the end it helped Auburn take the 23-20 overtime victory Monday night in the Georgia Dome.
Auburn (9-4) won the game when quarterback Kodi Burns ran from seven yards out for the game-winning score in the first overtime ever in this bowl game.
However, the night wasn’t as successful for Harper as the redshirt junior finished the night 14-of-33 passing for just 104 yards. He missed screen passes, middle passes, timing routes and deep throws. It just never clicked for Harper, who entered the night ranked 16th nationally in passing efficiency.
Harper said there was no carryover from the shoulder surgery he had a few weeks ago and that there is no real explanation for what transpired.
“My shoulder was fine,” he said. “I’ve been throwing extremely well in practice. I was just off the mark today. I just missed some throws in the passing game. I prepared the same way I have every week during the season. It was just one of those games where the accuracy wasn’t there.”
Not helping the cause for Clemson (9-4) was the fact the defense, which entered the game short of two starters, saw a few more get hurt during the game. However, the most devastating blow came in the third quarter when safety Michael Hamlin went down with a left knee strain.
That left Clemson without its top three tacklers. Linebackers Nick Watkins and Tramaine Billie, who finished first and third on the team in tackles respectively, were each suspended due to academic reasons.
Hamlin is the team’s second-leading tackler.
“We got hurt on some depth,” Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “We played eight freshmen on defense tonight.”
By the end of the third quarter, it was evident that the Clemson defenders were extremely tired. The newly implemented spread offense of Auburn really took its toll on the thin Clemson defense.
As a result, Clemson missed tackle after tackle because the players just didn’t have enough strength and stamina to bring the ball carrier down.
“If we could have just finished off some tackles … even the touchdown in the end, we had him in the backfield but couldn’t quite finish,” Koenning said. “But I hope the Clemson fans understand just how much our guys gave it everything they had.”
There was a different feeling following this loss than the one that happened last year to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. The players and coaches were more upbeat because they could sense that good things are about to happen.
Even Clemson tailback James Davis seemed fine with the way his team played. Of course he wanted the win, but he wasn’t disgusted in the effort.
“This game right here definitely showed the future and what’s to come,” he said. “I thought everything went OK. We went overtime with these guys and we fought hard and that’s what you want to see. We had some guys out on defense and we still took them to overtime.”
But there’s no denying the fact that Clemson had more than enough opportunities to win this game in regulation. The offense had it first-and-goal at the 5 and had to settle for a field goal.
Other times, wide open receivers streaked downfield only to have Harper throw it over their head or behind them. Nothing seemed click other than the running game.
“He was just a little off, just a little bit off on a couple of those throws,” Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence said. “I’d hate for one performance to take away from all the positives he’s done this season. …
“I think we could have had a very successful day had we been able to do just a little bit better throwing the ball down field.”
The first half provided a lot of excitement but nothing else. There were big plays, big hits, however, there were basically no points.
Both offense’s would periodically show flashes and move the ball, but each time they would ultimately bog down and either have to punt or wound up missing a field goal.
If not for one play, Clemson would have had hardly any offense at all. It was the worst it had looked since the losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
Stymied for the entire first quarter, Clemson got its first big play of the game when sophomore tailback C.J. Spiller took the handoff, got bottled up inside, broke free from the grasp of All-American defensive end Quentin Groves, bounced to the outside and sprinted 83 yards down the left sideline for the touchdown.
It was a play the Tigers had desperately needed. Not only did it give Clemson a 7-3 lead with 13:14 left in the second quarter, but more importantly it pumped life and energy into the entire team.
But that was it. Clemson wasn’t flat anymore, but that didn’t help the offense as Harper was off in a big way. In the opening half, He was 7-of-16 for 37 yards. That was the lowest amount of passing this season for the first half.
Clemson’s running game looked solid at times. Even not including Spiller’s breakaway, the team was able to gain chunks of yardage on the ground. Davis had eight carries for 44 yards.
Clemson will have to wait until next year to go after 10 wins, which hasn’t happened since 1990. Nonetheless, head coach Tommy Bowden likes the state of the program.
“I don’t think the program’s going backwards,” he said. “You win that game and you’re probably knocking on the door of the top 10.”
And that’s surely where Clemson will be to begin next season.