Up and Dirty
Clemson is back among the elite, but did it get there by playing too rough?
There's a thin line between playing very aggressively and playing dirty, and Clemson coach Tommy Bowden wants his Tigers to toe right up to that line. "If the speed limit is 55," says Bowden, "the police let you go 64 before they ticket you. I want us to play at 64."
Clemson's spread offense works at a relentless pace, intent on using the opponent's fatigue to its advantage. In the third quarter of the Tigers' game at Virginia last Saturday, with the Cavaliers' defense showing the first signs of weariness, Clemson's junior quarterback Woody Dantzler broke loose for touchdown runs of 75 and 45 yards that iced a 31-10 victory. Dantzler finished with 220 yards rushing and 154 passing, including a touchdown throw. In the 141 minutes he has played this fall, the Tigers have scored 151 points.
Bowden, a former receivers coach at Alabama and Auburn, has taught the Tigers' wideouts to cut-block. "When I'm downfield and cutting a defensive back, they'll say, 'Let up. The play's over,' " says sophomore wide receiver Jackie Robinson. "I like to hear that. That lets us know we're getting to them."
On defense no one's motor runs at a higher RPM than that of junior linebacker Keith Adams (SI, Sept. 11), who had six tackles, including a sack, against Virginia. Clemson uses a 4-3 defense, frequently blitzing Adams and outside linebacker Braxton Williams, and the Tigers' defensive backs are known for surreptitiously holding opposing receivers.
In only his second season at Clemson, Bowden has taken a team that was 3-8 in 1998 to 6-6 last year and 4-0 with a No. 7 ranking this season. It's the first time in nine years that the Tigers have cracked the Top 10. However, the aggressive style of play that he teaches is regarded by opponents as not toeing that thin line but crossing it. "You know they're nasty," says Virginia linebacker Donny Green. "You better have your head on a swivel. When the whistle is about to blow, you better brace yourself." Veteran Cavaliers defensive coordinator Rick Lantz says he isn't surprised by Clemson's methods. After all, he says, "it runs in the family."
Tommy's father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, famously said four years ago that he wants his defense to hit "until the echo of the whistle." Tommy has the same philosophy. "There's the whistle blow when it starts and the whistle blow when it ends," he says. "You got that six tenths of a second you can get one more shot in. It's still legit."
A few days before Clemson's 55-7 defeat of Wake Forest on Sept. 16, defensive tackle Jason Holloman says Bowden got on his defense because it hadn't knocked a quarterback out of a game yet. As it turned out, linebackers Rodney Thomas and Rodney Feaster took out Deacons quarterback C.J. Leak as he released a pass in the third quarter. Leak suffered a dislocated left knee and also tore ligaments in that knee. According to doctors, the injury is so severe that Leak, who is scheduled to undergo surgery on Sept. 26, must drop out of school for the rest of this semester to rehabilitate.
Both sides agree the tackle was clean, and Bowden says he never told his team to take out the quarterback. "That was a 20-year-old's interpretation of what was said at a position meeting," he says. "They're starting a sophomore quarterback. You want to get to him often in order to confuse and demoralize him."
Bowden understands why opponents don't like Clemson's style, but he doesn't apologize for it: "It's a game of emotion, intensity. If you don't coach it that way, your team's got very little chance of playing that way."