Clemson University

Bowden defends special teams

CLEMSON -- It might be fitting that to defend Clemson's specials teams, coach Tommy Bowden used an analogy to rhetoric.

When pressed Tuesday about whether special teams amounted to the great unsolved riddle of his nine-year tenure, Bowden asked for the accumulation of statistics that supposedly would paint such a dreary picture -- only to later dismiss statistics when making another argument.

"I'm sure as you talk some point during the course of 24 hours, you might use a grammatically incorrect sentence," Bowden said. "And then you're probably going to do it tomorrow and next week. To me, that would be a similar scenario.

"I wish we could play error-free football offensively, defensively and special teams. But I have not seen one team that hasn't made an error in special teams for 12 straight games."

There is logic and truth in Bowden's contention that perfection is impossible from a collection of units that might combine to play 20-30 snaps game.

What remains the vexing mystery is why Clemson's mistakes or failures in execution seem to come at such expense -- and why teams with superior special teams reputations like this weekend's opponent, No. 15 Virginia Tech, appear to lack a similar litany of regrettable performances.

Last Saturday's 13-3 upset loss at Georgia Tech, riddled with four missed field goals as well as a blocked punt and fumbled punt return that accounted for 10 of the Yellow Jackets' points, magnified the notion that special teams might ultimately figure as Bowden's nemesis in reaching the ACC championship.

They have already given Clemson less wiggle room in the Atlantic Division as the remainder of the season unfolds. Last year, special teams could take their share of the blame for three of the Tigers' five losses.

A blocked extra point in double overtime punctuated a 34-33 loss at Boston College that included one allowed kickoff return touchdown and three other long returns that put the Eagles in prime field position. Clemson's routinely abysmal kickoff coverage led to Maryland taking possession at its 34 with 2:25 remaining for its game-winning drive, and Jad Dean missed a game-tying 39-yard field goal with 0:13 left against USC.

Two years ago, a poorly executed fake field goal and a blocked punt played a role in a loss against Wake Forest, while a wild punt snap unraveled Clemson's 2004 game against Georgia Tech.

"Everybody has special teams problems," said senior linebacker Nick Watkins, a special teams regular. "The ones we make always seem to cost us a game and make a big deal."

So it would be fair to assume the Tigers do not want to hear that Virginia Tech might be due for one of its trademark "BeamerBall," game-changing plays.

The Hokies have blocked 113 punts, field goals and extra points in Frank Beamer's 245 games as coach. So far this season, they have none -- the first time since 1989 they have failed to record one this late in the year.

Bowden, though, seems less concerned about this year's mistakes because they mostly have not been concentrated in one specific area or been reflective of the players' practice performances.

Clemson hired former North Carolina running backs coach Andre' Powell in due part because of his special teams experienced, and the team has notably improved there despite allowing a TD return against North Carolina State.

A practice period is devoted to each of the special teams units three out of the four days per week the Tigers practice, while punt protection and kickoff coverage get one all four days "because those are seven points if you don't do them right," Bowden said.

Aside from experimenting with personnel on the punt protection unit -- linebacker Kavell Conner missed a read that led to the Georgia Tech block -- the only change Bowden believes should be made is to junior kicker Mark Buchholz's schedule.

Buchholz, a first-year football player and three-year soccer starter, has missed six field goals the last two games. While four were 46 yards or longer, he has pushed both a 29-yarder and a 30-yarder wide right.

He had been leaving football practices after the initial kicking periods to join soccer workouts.

But because Buchholz has gotten scarce repetitions in simulated game situations, Bowden reached an agreement with soccer coach Trevor Adair for Buchholz to remain at football so Clemson can intersperse field-goal situations during practices.

"What most kickers do, he's not getting," Bowden said. "He's a tough nut. That's why I haven't pulled him. I have to make sure I'm giving him a chance from a practice standpoint."

NO. 15 VIRGINIA TECH (4-1, 1-0 ACC) AT NO. 22 CLEMSON (4-1, 2-1 ACC)

• When: 6 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson

• TV: ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Sold out