Clemson's offense flat in finale

January, 1, 2009
1/01/09
6:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Clemson survived just about everything a team possibly could this season -- everything, that is, but the final two minutes.

 
 Daniel Plassmann/US Presswire
 Coach Dabo Swinney's mistake-prone offense cost Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

The Tigers endured a faceplant after being elevated to unrealistic expectations in the preseason polls, a midseason coaching change, and the loss of both their offensive and defensive coordinators. Their offensive woes came back to haunt them, though, on their final possession of the season in a 26-21 loss to Nebraska.

Instead of throwing the ball away as efficiently as he did for much of the first half, quarterback Cullen Harper was sacked for a loss of 16 yards to set up third-and-goal from the 26. Clemson had no timeouts and the playclock was running. Amid confusion on the final play, Harper took the snap with only three seconds left on the play clock, and for some reason, Aaron Kelly, Clemson's record-setting receiver, wasn't involved in the play.

The disorganization continued when the defense was penalized for having 12 players on the field, and Clemson looked more like a 4-4 ACC team than say, a certain 5-3 ACC team that won nine games this year.

Florida State, Maryland and Wake Forest -- all Atlantic Division teams -- are the only ACC winners in the nine bowl games that have been played so far. Tonight's FedEx Orange Bowl, featuring ACC champ Virginia Tech, is the conference's final chance to improve its bowl record.

Clemson has plenty of chances to do it, but was inept on offense (four yards rushing, three of 16 on third-down conversions) against a rather inviting pass defense. Harper threw two costly interceptions, and all three of Clemson's scores came off turnovers. In addition to adding a defensive coordinator to his staff, coach Dabo Swinney might also want to think long and hard about an offensive coordinator. The Tigers were also hurt by a blocked punt and a blocked field goal.

It all overshadowed a gutsy effort by the Tigers' defense, which forced Nebraska to score on four field goals, and scored the first touchdown of the game. Clemson can't knock good teams off the ball, and the Tigers struggle against veteran defenses that are well coached. And Bo Pelini is a defensive kind of guy.

What has to be frustrating for Clemson fans is watching this offense at its finest, like on a critical fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter when Harper threw a beautiful pass to Jacoby Ford to extend the drive, or the 41-yard touchdown pass over the top to Ford that showcased his blazing speed. Those were the kinds of plays fans hungered for as the Tigers mucked their way through the first half of the season with former coach Tommy Bowden.

Instead, it was the dropped balls, the inconsistency at quarterback, the offensive line, the coaching changes and the play calling that defined their season.

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