Clemson’s 17-0 halftime lead has turned into a 21-17 deficit, and if the Tigers are going to keep this season from spiraling completely out of control they have to score a touchdown here.
This was supposed to be the year for Clemson.
The Tigers entered the 2008 season ranked in the top 10 with an abundance of talent, led by running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller.
But Clemson is 3-4 as it is playing its eighth game of the year at Boston College, and a season that started with so much potential is on life support.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Two of Clemson’s three wins have come against Division I-AA foes The Citadel and South Carolina State, and the Tigers have already made a head coaching change with little-known receivers coach Dabo Swinney replacing Tommy Bowden in the middle of the year.
Swinney is 0-1 as the head man and is in danger of falling to 0-2 as Boston College scores to take a 21-17 lead with about eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Interim receivers coach Jeff Scott, who was promoted from his grad assistant role when Swinney was named the interim head coach, is sitting in the coaching box at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and thoughts about his future are swirling through his head.
Scott knows that Clemson not only needs a touchdown to end a three-game losing skid. The Tigers also need to find the end zone if Swinney is going to have a shot to remain the head coach moving forward.
“He told me that even though the odds are against us, if I’m able to get this job I’m going to keep you full time as the wideout coach,” Scott recalled.
Scott went home and studied Clemson’s remaining schedule the night Swinney was named interim head coach, and he believed that if Clemson could finish the season 4-2 over the final six games, Swinney had a shot to be retained.
But with an 0-2 record staring Swinney in the face and several tough games remaining, including one at Florida State, Swinney’s shot at becoming the head coach was evaporating.
“I remember during that timeout thinking, ‘These next (eight) minutes of this game are probably going to dictate the next 10 or 15 years of our coaching career,” Scott said.
CHANGE IS NEEDED
Clemson had a shot to make a statement in its season opener in 2008 as the ninth-ranked Tigers faced No. 24 Alabama, led by Nick Saban. Instead, the Tigers were destroyed 34-10 in a marquee game on national television.
About five weeks later when Clemson suffered a 12-7 loss to Wake Forest to fall to 3-3, it marked the end of the Bowden era. He resigned the following week and Swinney was promoted.
“It was a very unique situation. It was very uncomfortable. It was the first time that I had seen anything like that,” Spiller told The State. “Part of me, I was definitely sad because you never want to see a coach get fired … You always want to finish with that coach that you came in with as a freshman. But at the same time I was excited because I knew the type of job that coach Swinney would do.”
Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips had observed Swinney closely throughout the 2008 season, and even though he was only a position coach, Phillips decided the 38-year-old deserved a shot at the head job — at least on an interim basis.
“During that period of time when I would walk through the football offices and coaches weren’t in meetings, there’d be players in his office, where that wasn’t the case with other coaches,” Phillips said. “I’m talking about players that weren’t his position players. He just was great with young people and developed a great relationship. These are things that were just very natural to him.”
Swinney immediately brought energy and belief to Clemson’s team after taking over as the head coach.
He held a team meeting his first day as the leader of the Tigers and demanded accountability from his players.
“He came in and told guys, ‘You’ve got to be all in.’ We had a Monday night practice and he said, ‘If you’re not all in don’t show up.’ … He was very blunt with us,” Spiller said.
Swinney’s first game as the interim head coach was against Georgia Tech. The Tigers rallied from a 14-3 halftime deficit to lead 17-14 late, but the Yellow Jackets scored with five minutes remaining and held on for the 21-17 win.
Clemson was without Spiller in the loss after he injured his hamstring against Wake Forest. The Tigers now had a bye week before facing Boston College.
“It was his first game as the interim head coach and I wasn’t able to go out there and try to help my guys win because of the injury that I had sustained the week before,” Spiller said. “So going into that Boston College game I told Coach, ‘I’ll be ready to go. I’ll be ready to play. Don’t worry about me. Just get the game plan together. How every many touches I can get, just do it.’”
Boston College entered the matchup 5-2 on the season, and had won all three meetings with the Tigers since joining the ACC in 2005.
Clemson had not won at BC since 1953, and the Tigers were winless in their previous six games against the Eagles. Clemson desperately needed that trend to end.
“We’ve got to win four of the next five,” Scott said of his thoughts entering the game. “I knew that if we lost the Boston College game, we start off 0-2 and still have to go to Florida State and all these other games, that it’s probably done.”
The first half could not have gone any better for Clemson.
Davis and quarterback Cullen Harper each had touchdown runs, and Mark Buchholz made a field goal just before the half to give the Tigers a 17-0 lead.
But it didn’t last long. Boston College outplayed the Tigers for much of the second half and took its first lead when Chris Crane found Brandon Robinson for a 15-yard touchdown with 8:43 remaining.
Leading 21-17, BC had to kick off to Spiller and Jacoby Ford, two of the most dynamic return men in the country. Teams had been kicking it away from the two for much of the year, but Spiller was still hopeful he would get a shot.
Spiller did and took advantage of it, breaking off a 64-yard return before being chased out of bounds at the Boston College 15.
“We always ended the huddle with ‘Take it to the house.’ That was always our slogan every time,” Spiller said. “The guys did a great job of executing and staying on their blocks. I made a couple of guys miss. I just ran out of gas at the end, but I knew right then that was the big momentum swing … I knew if we got a short field we would put up points and have a good opportunity to win the game.”
Clemson did just that as Harper found Aaron Kelly for a 4-yard touchdown with seven minutes remaining to give Clemson a 24-21 lead.
The Tigers defense got a stop on the ensuing position, and Buchholz tacked on a field goal late for a 27-21 win.
“You would’ve thought we were playing for the national championship,” Swinney said. “It was so much fun to see the effort and the togetherness and the guys just handling adversity and fighting back. It was an emotional first win.”
The victory was special not only for Swinney as his first as a head coach, but also to the players who had bought into his vision and were trying to help him turn the program around.
“To go out there and get his first win, it was the greatest feeling as a player at that time to just see the joy,” Spiller said. “We had been through so much over those couple of weeks, from the coaching change to trying to adjust to how coach Swinney wanted to do things … If you go back and look at some of those pictures you’ll see everybody smiling, everybody happy, guys crying. It was just awesome being able to celebrate the win up there.”
The victory over Boston College turned out to be a springboard for the Tigers.
Clemson won four of its final five regular season games, falling only at FSU.
Phillips, pleased with the progress under Swinney, made the decision to retain him as the head coach after conducting a national search.
“We could’ve hired someone else that had credentials at that time that were very well-established, but at the end of the day you’ve got to live and die by whatever decisions are made,” Phillips said. “There were just some intangibles that I simply couldn’t escape.”
The decision to retain Swinney was one that Spiller and the rest of the players at Clemson were thrilled with.
Spiller opted to return for his senior season due in part to Swinney being named the head coach.
“It definitely played a huge factor with me deciding to return,” Spiller said. “Obviously with me having that personal relationship with him, with him recruiting me, I knew he was the right fit for us because I knew guys would relate to him and guys respected him from other positions, not just his receivers group, everybody on the team.”
BUILDING A DYNASTY
Swinney has taken Clemson’s program to a new level as he enters his 10th season as the head coach.
Clemson won nine games during Swinney’s first full season in 2009, and the Tigers have won at least 10 games each of the past seven years. Clemson has also won three consecutive ACC titles and reached the College Football Playoff three consecutive years, with a national title in 2016.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. I knew what type of worker he is,” Spiller said. “Guys just relate to him. He’s a living testament. There’s nothing that he hasn’t been through that most guys can’t relate to.”
Swinney earned his 100th win last November when his Tigers beat South Carolina for the fourth consecutive year.
It marked another special milestone for Scott and Swinney, a milestone that almost didn’t occur.
“When I look back 10 years later at the success that coach Swinney has had here at Clemson, one of the best decades in Clemson football history, just to think if that last drive at Boston College would’ve gone different what would the last decade have looked like and where would we all be now?” Scott said. “Obviously I’m a man of faith, so I believe the good Lord had a plan up there and that was part of it.”