Clemson University

Ramblin' Wreck ruins debuts for Swinney, Korn

Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt scores on a 5-yard run while teammate Dan Voss celebrates in the end zone during the first half.
Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt scores on a 5-yard run while teammate Dan Voss celebrates in the end zone during the first half.

CLEMSON -- Athletics director Terry Don Phillips sat in a golf cart overlooking the vacated Memorial Stadium field, demurely scribbling notes.

If Phillips were assessing Dabo Swinney's debut as Clemson's interim coach after Saturday's 21-17 loss against Georgia Tech, this could have been the abbreviated version:

Bells and whistles to rally the fan base were widely successful. Players responded to his job promotion with renewed and unified spirit.

But the outcome bore a striking resemblance to those that finally spurred Tommy Bowden's preemptive resignation last week.

"This was not about the game," Swinney said. "The biggest thing I wanted to accomplish was unity, embracing some things, creating some pride, doing little things right. Because if we don't take pride in doing the little things, we'll come up short time and time again."

For someone whose six- or seven-game audition hinges specifically on accruing a lot more wins than losses, though, coming up short yet again did little to endorse Swinney's persistent positivity.

A new leader, new quarterback -- albeit briefly -- and supposedly new lease on life were not enough to shake an unmistakable pattern dogging the Tigers (3-4, 1-3 ACC), who have lost three straight for the first time since 2005.

"The fun's in winning," senior receiver Aaron Kelly said. "Losing like this, it kind of feels like your hard work is going down the drain."

Clemson certainly appears at the edge of a grate, as the team that began the season ranked No. 9 nationally now must win four of its final five games to even gain bowl eligibility. The Tigers have their second bye this week before embarking on consecutive road games at Boston College and Florida State.

Having overcome a rash of turnovers to be on the verge of upsetting the Yellow Jackets (6-1, 3-1), the Tigers squandered another fourth-quarter lead because their defense broke when it counted -- and their broken offense failed to mend their propensity for getting in their own way.

"It's frustrating because that was our new start," reserve defensive tackle Jock McKissic said.

Up 17-14 with under nine minutes left, Clemson yielded a 23-yard pass on third-and-14, reminiscent of the key 28-yard completion it surrendered on third-and-24 at Wake Forest a week earlier.

True to form, Georgia Tech capitalized six plays later, notching a decisive 24-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nesbitt to Demaryius Thomas with 5:22 remaining when cornerback Chris Chancellor bit on a stop-and-go.

The completions were only the Yellow Jackets' fourth and fifth of the game, respectively.

Clemson responded by charging into Georgia Tech territory behind senior quarterback Cullen Harper, summoned late in the first quarter to replace injured starter Willy Korn.

After two incompletions and a lost yardage catch left the Tigers facing fourth-and-12 from their 47, they appeared to finally mount a breakthrough moment.

Harper rolled right and hit a backpedaling Jacoby Ford for a 27-yard gain to the Tech 26 with 2:42 to go.

But a holding call against center Thomas Austin nullified the momentum-swinging play, and an ad-libbed hook-and-ladder pass failed to keep Clemson from turning over possession on downs.

"We wanted to make it happen so bad," Harper said. "But mistakes that happened there at the end kept it from happening. But we're all-in with coach Swinney, and we're going to keep fighting.

"Bottom line is, we've got to get back to winning, and we can't be making all these mistakes."

Clemson committed six turnovers, its most since its 1999 bowl game. Four were interceptions, including a Harper last-second desperation heave and an ill-advised attempt by spinning receiver Tyler Grisham that was returned 34 yards for Georgia Tech's first-quarter touchdown.

Swinney delivered on his pledge for more downfield throws, a primary criticism of the play-caller he did not retain, former offensive coordinator Rob Spence.

Kelly finished with seven catches for a season-high 122 yards and two touchdowns, his first of the year.

But it did not add up to increased fireworks for the offense, which has failed to reach 20 points against four of five Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.

The patchwork offensive line's continued struggles in both run-blocking and pass protection validated Swinney's repeated contention that "Rome was not built in a day."

"Nobody who watched that game can say those kids didn't compete and play with passion, and I don't think that's been the case," Swinney said.

"The worm's going to turn if we just keep believing."