Hoo boy. Two things to cover in this article. Both involve a little slice of humble pie, to say the least. One for me, and one for the Clemson Tigers.
First off, I feel the need to apologize for being a bad fan. I don't mean a bad fan posting impossibly high expectations for his team, or engaging in a little good-natured ribbing on friends and acquaintences of the other squad, or not making it out to every game of the season.
I want my Tigers to win it all; that will never change. I make an honest effort to not be mean-spirited or nasty in speaking to fans of our opponents, two of which include members of my own family. And sometimes I have greater priorities that take precedence over a trivial football game, and as much as I'd like to, I physically can't make it.
No, I mean a bad fan who quits encouraging the team he loves, loses his emotions, and gets so upset he tears down the very football players who are out there busting their tails to win the game. I've been guilty of that more times than I care to admit, and last year, I finally sat down and came to the realization that I was in fact doing more harm than good by calling out players and coaches in the heat of the moment.
I certainly was not helping the team in any way (they get yelled at plenty in practice) and I had to be fueling the fires of discontent around me. Others, no doubt, heard me and joined in the criticism.
Why did I react so harshly? I'm not really an emotional guy by any means, but when I'm that invested in something, it will evoke a passionate response from me. Yelling during a football game is how I give vent to those emotions.
But, what I did wasn't constructive in any way, and anyone who heard me could not have come away with a positive image of me as a Tiger fan, a college football fan, or even as a person in general.
Plus, I know it's dishonorable to God. I'm a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ, and I knew deep down what I did wasn't honoring the standards of the lifestyle I want to lead in and out of the stands, much less as a spectator.
So this year, I made a conscious decision to change my approach. From now on, I wasn't going to yell or shout or scream anything during a football game that wasn't in some way encouraging or supportive.
If Cullen Harper was intercepted, or James Davis fumbled the ball, or Cory Lambert whiffed on a tackle and let a lineman sack our QB, I would bite back the automatic negative response and just shut my mouth.
The team doesn't need those kinds of words, the people around me don't need them, and I certainly don't need them. I want to get up the next morning, read the sports page recap, reflect on the game, and I want to say:
"At least I did my part as a fan. I supported the team. I had their backs. I didn't throw them under the bus in anger. I don't regret anything I said or did yesterday."
End of tangent. Onto the game breakdown...
Now it's humble pie time. Concerns about the Clemson offensive line were well-founded. Alabama's defensive front line man-handled our less experienced guys. At times, it seemed like as soon as Thomas Austin snapped the ball, Bama's linemen were closing on Cullen Harper.
Basically, Bama lined up and punched them in the mouth. They didn't punch back. Hard to watch, yes, but not entirely unexpected.
I guess as the August weeks wore on, we bought into the Clemson coaches' assurances that the O-line was coming together as a unit. I suppose I did. But after Saturday night, I realize the reality: we still replaced at least three starters.
No matter how many snaps Barry Humphries, Cory Lambert, and Jamarcus Grant had in rotation last year, it's going to take time to develop the continuity and chemistry necessary for them to consistently hold blocks and protect Harper.
Bama's tough, physical scheme exposed them. They did not even have to employ many of the zone or blitz packages that Nick Saban's teams are known for. They simply lined up and blew our guys off the ball, leaving Harper vulnerable.
With the line in dire straits, the fact that Clemson totaled only seven rushing yards is not too hard to understand. Say what you will about James Davis' grit, or C.J. Spiller's flash, or Jamie Harper's toughness, but if the line can't open holes for them, they're going down hard.
It's still just one guy against four big, physical guys. Without some kind of running lane, the RB can't win that contest.
Davis had six carries for 13 yards. Spiller two for seven, Jamie Harper never touched the football again after fumbling on the first run of the game. Cullen Harper was sacked three times for 28 lost yards and found himself repeatedly being chased around his own backfield after his line collapsed around him, or getting pounded to the turf after lobbing up poorly-thrown balls.
It was clear Cullen was never comfortable in the pocket and could not take the time to check off receivers without being constantly aware of a lineman headed directly for him.
I think this also affected his usually rocksteady decision-making. Lobbing the ball up for grabs in the shadow of his own endzone was a freshman mistake that could've cost his team six points. Another time, he tossed a short screen intended for Aaron Kelly, who was streaking ten yards down the field, a step ahead of his defender. Had Harper locked in Kelly's route, it could've been an easy touchdown. Instead, the ball landed far behind his receiver.
Tyler Grisham was the only receiver who had any real success, logging six catches for 42 yards. He made a couple of nice catches and showcased his toughness in fighting off the oncoming defenders to get the ball.
Jacoby Ford had the one highlight pass catch of the night, a 47-yard dash off a quick pitch from Harper, but he was hurt soon afterwards and didn't return. Terrence Ashe had three catches for 18 yards, but he and Nelson Faerber also dropped a few key throws. Tight ends weren't much of a factor; Durell Berry's nine-yard catch on a failed fourth down attempt was the only one I recall.
This was a bigger surprise. Time and again I watched in (silent) astonishment as Alabama constantly pounded the football through our supposedly-stout defensive line for 3-5 yards every play. Dorell Scott, Jarvis Jenkins, Jamie Cumbie, and others were powerless to stop them.
What was hoped to be one of our team's greatest strengths this year couldn't hold its ground against Bama's relentless rushing attack.
John Parker Wilson enjoyed a prolific night; on several occasions, he could have made a sandwich and completed a pass with what little pressure we got.
Losing Ricky Sapp early didn't help matters. He's our best pass rusher, and we can only hope he'll be back soon. Kavell Conner had 16 tackles, but that meant he was the only one of our inexperienced LBs who consistently made plays.
Da'Quan Bowers played several snaps, but he was no more effective than Kevin Alexander or Jeremy Campbell in applying pressure to Wilson.
Tackling was putrid. On the few occasions that Clemson's linemen met Alabama's backs at the line of scrimmage, they either bounced off or tried to bump them hard enough to make them fall. No dice.
Mark Ingram and Glenn Coffee ran over, around, and through a series of remarkably slipshod tackles enroute to 186 yards rushing between them.
The secondary was even more baffling. Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons were barely a factor. Guys were often out of position on key plays, never more evident than Wilson's first touchdown pass on our four-yard line. Nick Walker had nobody near him, and by the time our guys turned their heads around, he was celebrating with the football in hand.
You know things are pretty grim when this is the lone bright spot for the Tigers. Spiller's 96-yard kickoff return for a TD gave me a brief glimmer of hope that lasted less than five minutes when the Tigers, after stopping Bama on defense, promptly surrendered the ball.
Kickoff coverage was average, but I still didn't come away too impressed. At least twice, I watched our lead rusher over-pursue his lane, slip, and fall down behind the catcher as he got the ball. That's an amateurish mistake that I hope will get corrected in practice.
Dawson Zimmerman saw his first action at punter. His first attempt was a 51-yard bomb that showed me why the coaches were loving his stuff. Then his second attempt, out of the endzone, traveled about 25 yards. Sigh. The battle continues.
Mark Bucholtz provided our only other points of the night, booting a 33-yard kick through the sticks.
Well, this game provided the first opportunity to test my new outlook for football games. And man, was it tested. It seemed every other play, I had the urge to shout a negative comment or call out a player. It took a herculean effort to restrain myself. As a result, I didn't do much yelling of any sort after the third quarter.
Sad, sobering reality had set in.
To say that Clemson got suckerpunched is inadequate. Clemson got flat-out mauled and mangled in the trenches by a tougher, more physical opponent that played like it should have been ranked No. 9 in the country.
Coach Saban brought a heck of a gameplan for us, and his players ran it to perfection. It was purely a case of one team showing up to play football and the other not showing up at all.
Our pride is severely hurt, and well it should be. Players are banged up. Humphries might need surgery on his knee, and Mason Cloy may have to be prepped to hold down his spot for the long term. Sapp is questionable for next week's game.
Ford, thankfully, only has a concussion; no reason he shouldn't be at or near full strength within a week. Grisham has knee tendinitis, Hamlin has a cast on his thumb, and Cullen Harper is also banged up—no shock considering the beating he took. We could be seeing more of Marquan Jones next week at wideout, along with the first start of redshirt freshman Willy Korn.
Needless to say, the mood among the Clemson faithful is dreary. Some are in shock. Few saw this coming. But almost all share a sense of "been there, seen that" in regard to our performance, so there are already calls for our coaches' heads. I'm not in that camp. I'm ready to move forward with the Citadel.
Yes, we have some major issues, but there are 11 games left to turn things around. I'm not throwing in the towel on the season, or on Tommy Bowden, or on Rob Spence or Vic Koenning, or the starters after one game. Not anymore, at least. So I'll be in the Valley next week at 3:30 to cheer on the Tigers as they take the field against the Bulldogs.
(And if any Tiger fans read this and are so disgusted they're quitting on the team, shoot me an email. I've got plenty of family members who'd love to have your tickets.)