Clemson University

Finish what you start

Clemson defensive end Ricky Sapp, top, and Clemson linebacker Stanley Hunter sack Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt.
Clemson defensive end Ricky Sapp, top, and Clemson linebacker Stanley Hunter sack Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt.

CLEMSON -- To stunt the Clemson defense's not-so-electric slide, junior end Ricky Sapp proposes the first step probably should include putting a stop to its premature celebrations.

Before numerous third downs against Georgia Tech two weeks ago, players animatedly hopped to the beat of the music thumping across the public address system, waving their arms to rouse the home crowd.

"I think we're going to stop dancing around," Sapp said. "We just have to make the play, then party later."

The party has come to a crashing halt for the Tigers' defense each of the last three games, turning what should have been cause for festivity into a season mired in regret.

Clemson has yielded a mere five touchdowns in consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference losses to Maryland, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.

But it's the timing of rare moments of weakness that has cast a pall over otherwise superlative performances.

Despite the offense's anemic production, the Tigers have nonetheless carried leads of three, four and five points into the last three fourth quarters, only to surrender decisive scoring drives that have made their 1-3 conference record all the more difficult to swallow.

"It goes back to having that mentality, you've got to play 60 minutes," interim coach Dabo Swinney said. "We have to win the fourth quarter. Take care of the ball, be a little better on third-and-long, and I think good things will happen to this football team."

Swinney's explanation might seem more plausible if the recurrences did not appear more an inherent flaw than recent trend.

Such circumstances were the rule, not the exception, for Clemson's defeats last season as well.

Matt Ryan's scrambling, improvisational touchdown pass to elevate Boston College past the Tigers and into the ACC title game defined Clemson's season, but the defense also gave up clinching fourth-quarter scores in stout showings against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

"It's always been that one drive with us," senior safety Michael Hamlin said.

Furthermore, Hamlin said, Clemson's struggles this season all point to its inability to slow the momentum opponents have gained by converting long third downs.

Which, depending on the perspective, could support or refute defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's assertion that while there is an inescapable psychological element involved in the fourth-quarter demises, there is no common thread related to his scheme.

Against Maryland, the Terps drove a short field for their go-ahead score, then completed a pair of third-down passes in the final four minutes to run out the clock.

At Wake Forest, backup safety Haydrian Lews froze and allowed a 28-yard catch on a third-and-24. And against Georgia Tech, the Tigers played for a pass on a third-and-18 that the Yellow Jackets converted with a run up the middle.

"Have we always had special emphasis on the fourth quarter? Yes," Koenning said. "Did we run six million pursuit and fourth-quarter drills in spring and August? Yes. We just haven't made a play."

Said defensive line coach Chris Rumph: "If you look back at the last three games, it's probably been three plays. And if we make those three plays, coach (Tommy) Bowden is probably still here. Ain't no doubt about it.

"The blame falls on us as much as anybody else."