CLEMSON -- Perhaps if Clemson could have completed the comeback Saturday, the same nagging question that's dogged the Tigers all season would have been unasked for once.
As it was, a rally fell short, No. 15 Virginia Tech rolled to a 41-23 win and Clemson coach Tommy Bowden had to answer the same query -- what is wrong with the Tigers' special teams?
"We can't work any longer or harder on special teams," Bowden insisted after Clemson allowed touchdown returns of 82 and 100 yards, spotting Tech a 31-8 halftime lead which proved insurmountable. "We're just going to have to figure out the right combination of players and continue to work hard."
Before last week, Clemson's special teams weren't good but at least they weren't costing the Tigers games. Last week, in a 13-3 loss at Georgia Tech, place-kicker Mark Buchholz missed four field goals and a punt was blocked, bringing the problems to a head.
Bowden spent 30 minutes of a 49-minute press conference earlier this week discussing why the special teams' woes weren't discouraging. The problems aren't as bad as they're made out to be, he said.
Following Saturday's loss, he again was asked about the unit's ineptitude, which allowed more yards (278) than the defense did (219).
And again, he didn't have a clear-cut answer.
"We got starters on there," he said. "Maybe the starters aren't good enough in the positions that we're putting them."
Virginia Tech used its defense to notch an early score, D.J. Parker hauling in a tipped pass for a 32-yard touchdown return. Then the real trouble started, Eddie Royal's 33-yard scamper setting up a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Royal was at it again later in the first quarter, blasting down the right sideline for an 82-yard punt return TD. Up 17-0, Tech turned to its defense and dared Clemson to run.
The Tigers' tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller was solidly crunched at the line, the Hokies stacking the box and forcing the pass. Quarterback Cullen Harper had another tipped ball intercepted and fumbled away another possession on a sack, giving Tech more room.
Victor Harris took a kick on the "C" in the "Clemson" in the west end zone. He stopped running when his feet again hit a "C" -- 100 yards downfield.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot," said Harper, who threw for 372 yards on school-record 38 completions and 66 attempts, but still had to settle for a loss. "I feel like all across the board, we all could have helped out."
"I really don't know what happened," said running backs coach Andre Powell, who splits time with the Tigers' special teams. "Got to see the tape before you evaluate what happened."
What happened was the Hokies were up 31-8 at halftime and played ball-control the entire third quarter. Clemson notched a touchdown to make it 31-15 just after the fourth quarter began, but Tech came up with a key stop, a field goal and another touchdown to snuff the rally.
If it wasn't for the special teams, Clemson (4-2, 2-2) would have had a banner night. Aaron Kelly (174) and Tyler Grisham (100) each broke the 100-yard plateau in receiving yards.
"It's not from lack of effort," said Rock Hill native Jimmy Maners, who punted seven times for an average of 48 yards. "It just seems like there's always one block or something that costs us."
Virginia Tech 17 14 0 10 -- 41
Clemson 0 8 0 15 -- 23