And the results of the 21-17 defeat to Georgia Tech to start the new season came from some of the same mistakes that made the one-time favorites to win the ACC Championship an average team to begin with.
Penalties, turnovers, missed assignments and the Tigers inability to make that one play that separates them from being winners of three in a row to losers of three straight.
“This football team has played one game. We are 0-1,” interim head coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s how I see it. We are 0-1 and we will see what happens at (Boston College).”
What the Tigers (3-4, 1-3 ACC) can’t continue to have happen is lose any more games or every goal they once had for the 2008 season will be gone. Any hopes of winning the ACC Championship have definitely went out the window and now their goal of making a postseason bowl game is in jeopardy.
Clemson, who has lost three straight games and three straight conferences games for the first time in three year, needs four wins in their last five games in order to become bowl eligible.
“We have to take it week-by-week,” quarterback Cullen Harper said. “We realize this isn’t where we want to be, but we have to rally around Coach Swinney and we have to turn this thing around.
“We just have to go out there and play the way we are capable of playing.”
The Tigers did not play well in the beginning against Tech, especially offensively. Clemson managed just 33 yards of offense with 3 three-and-outs and two interceptions – one of which was returned 34 yards for the game’s first score by Tech free safety Dominique Reese.
Willy Korn’s first start did not turn out the way he would have hoped either after he was taken out of the game after receiving a shot from Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan. Korn did not return and had an MRI on his right shoulder Saturday after the game to see if there was any more damage.
“We will find out the situation with him and then we will do what we have to do. We are going to keep on rolling,” Swinney said.
After a few more sputters Harper eventually got the offense going by moving Clemson to the Yellow Jackets 17-yard line before he was sacked for a 6-yard loss. Kicker Mark Buchholz, however, got the Tigers on the board with a 40-yard field goal that made the score 7-3 with 4:49 left in the half.
Georgia Tech answered on its ensuing possession when Jonathan Dwyer ran through a gabbing hole on third-and-16 from his own 14 on the left side that was left vacant by defensive end Ricky Sapp, who was caught sneaking inside. The 31-yard run to the 45, keyed quarterback Josh Nesbitt’s 5-yard touchdown a few moments later which allowed Tech to take a 14-3 lead into the break.
“When I went in the locker room and we were down 11 points, I didn’t see any panic or anything like that from anyone on this team,” Swinney said. “I knew they were going to come out and fight in the second half.
“We made some adjustments from the first half and we executed better in the second half.”
The Tigers started executing a little better thanks to a second Tech fumble at their own 44-yard line. It gave Clemson the spark it was searching for as Harper hit receiver Aaron Kelly four plays later with a 32-yard touchdown pass.
It was Kelly’s first touchdown reception of the season.
“It felt great to have the opportunities down field and to show the capabilities that I have,” said Kelly, who had 7 receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns. “I just had more opportunities in this game and it felt really good to get back in the end zone.”
It didn’t take him long to get there for a second time, when he grabbed a slip screen on the Tigers’ next possession and raced 31 yards untouched for the go-ahead score. Just like that, the Tigers had a 17-14 lead with 2:16 to play in the third quarter.
Harper completed 5-of-5 passes for 100 yards in the third quarter and finished the game15-of-25 for 170 yards.
“The first half was a little frustrating, but the third quarter showed a glimpse of the potential we have,” center Thomas Austin said.
Unfortunately for Clemson that glimpse was just that, a glimpse.
Georgia Tech (6-1, 3-1) finally broke through against a Clemson defense that had bottled it up for the majority of the second half. Faced with a third down-and-14 at his own 36, Nesbitt rolled to his right to avoid pressure and gave himself enough time to find Demaryius Thomas for a 23-yard gain to the Clemson 41.
Another third down play a few minutes later doomed the Tigers again when on third-and-six from the Clemson 24, Nesbitt found Thomas wide open down the right sideline for what turned out to be the game-winner. The touchdown came when corner Chris Chancellor slipped on the play fake from Nesbit.
With more than five minutes to play, Clemson still had a chance to win the game and appeared positioned to do so when Harper found Jacoby Ford for a 27-yard gain on fourth-and-12 to the Tech 26. But the play was called back due to a questionable holding call on Austin.
The Tigers turned the ball over on downs after that and Tech ran out all but three seconds of the clock.
“I didn’t know it was on me until after the play and I asked the ref, ‘was that me?’ He said ‘yeah, you held him.’ I thought okay, but he landed on top of me,” Austin said. “It’s frustrating, but you have to live with that. It is part of the game.
“We had opportunities all day, but we just didn’t get the job done.”