Dabo Swinney is a huge dork. He dresses like he’s in his second or third year of undergrad. (He looks around that age, too, which should be impossible for someone with a job as stressful as “power 5 college football coach”. Has he located the fountain of youth?) He once got into a war of words with Steve Spurrier - a fool’s errand if there ever was one against a trash talking grandmaster, especially if you’re Dabo Swinney. There’s a tinge of deep southern in every thing he says - it might be charming to a few, but to most, it ain’t.
Swinney also won the 2016 national championship, so he’s now a dork that’s won a national championship. It didn’t take him long to go from questionable coordinator hire who was on the ropes following consecutive losses to South Carolina to being one of the top coaches today, making each of the last three College Football Playoffs. (Only Nick Saban himself has done better.) Things started to turn around for him in the 2011 season - following a disastrous year which saw his Tigers finish 6-7, he rebounded to win ten games, and hasn’t won fewer since. In week 3, Clemson knocked off defending national champion Auburn in Death Valley. Auburn was on a 17 game winning streak, and after the victory Swinney’s postgame exuberance became a minor hit among the college football landscape. Clemson followed that with two more huge victories - another home upset over an FSU team that was fresh off a loss to top ranked Oklahoma, and a 23-3 demolition of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg - and cruised their way to 8-0 in time for their annual cross-divisional matchup at Georgia Tech.
Tech, for their part, had started the season burning everything to the ground. In each of their first five games, their offense had scored at least 35 points, topping the 60 point mark twice, and they set some records along the way. But the cracks started to show in week six with a 21-16 squeaker over Maryland, and the Jackets followed that up with back to back road defeats at the Charlottesville house of horrors and Miami’s cavernous NFL stadium. Dreams of College GameDay coming to Atlanta for Clemson at Georgia Tech went up in smoke, but Tech fans would get a decent consolation: a primetime TV slot on ABC to host the #5 Clemson Tigers on homecoming. And really, when you’ve just seen your team drop some mind-numbingly stupid decisions like Tech had, wouldn’t you just be fired up to host a top 5 team, at night, on national television?
And yes, of course it was homecoming again. This time, at least, Tech could genuinely say it wasn’t trying to schedule its toughest opponent for homecoming weekend. After all, the Tigers had finished with a losing season just last year, and the Jackets had taken six of the last eight in the series. The Tigers were looking to blaze their way to the BCS title game seemingly out of nowhere. It was Tajh Boyd’s time to shine as Clemson’s quarterback, and his opportunity was boosted not by the OC hire of Chad Morris from Tulsa but by fellow playmakers DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
Tech, meanwhile, was helmed by redshirt junior Tevin Washington. Washington not only had the unenviable responsibility of following Joshua Nesbitt, but had been thrust into the starting role half a season earlier than expected when Nesbitt broke his arm in the latter half of the 2010 season. The end of that season proved to be.... less than fun, but Washington was back and better than ever in 2011. This would prove to be his biggest test yet.
Seemingly. Despite all the aforementioned, to describe Clemson’s offensive performance in the first half would be to describe an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way. On their first possession, the Tigers kicked a long field goal to get on the board first. It would be their only lead of the entire game. The rest of the half was pure misery: on their second drive, the Tigers started out by throwing a pass that went for negative yardage. This was followed by Boyd committing an intentional grounding penalty after being pressured by TJ Barnes. Finally, on just the third play of the drive, Boyd completed a pass to DJ Howard - who dropped the ball as he was being tackled. Rod Sweeting, not missing a beat, picked it up and ran it back to the endzone. It was only thanks to a premature whistle by the referees Sweeting was only credited with the recovery and not a touchdown.
Following that, the Tigers would punt after six plays, then again after three plays. With one more chance near the end of the half, they were stopped at the Georgia Tech 22. Chandler Catanzaro had a 40 yard field goal to kick from between the hashes.... and hooked it wide left. Very wide. Al Groh’s defense had, impressively, completely stymied a hotter and much more talented Tigers offense. Clemson’s runs were all for short yardage, and Boyd’s passes frequently found themselves within inches of Tech’s secondary - he threw two interceptions that night, and was lucky that number wasn’t more like six.
On the opposite side of the ball, Tech’s offense was having an even more uncharacteristic performance, at least relative to the past two weeks. Their first two drives lasted six total plays and gained negative eight yards, but the turnover invigorated them. Tech had 1st and 10 at the Clemson 19. Three plays later, Washington kept on 2nd down to get the ball to the 1 - and was stuffed on 3rd down. Facing an early gut check, Paul Johnson elected to go for it. Washington pitched right to Orwin Smith, who was freed up by a block from Roddy Jones. The crowd didn’t need to wait for for Smith to reach the endzone to start cheering. They knew it was six once Jones made that block.
Having broken out of their funk, Tech’s offense relentlessly built their lead for the rest of the half. They settled for a field goal on their next possession, aided by a 46 yard run by Washington. Washington would call his own number a lot that night, and would end up with 176 rushing yards on the night, a then-record for Georgia Tech quarterbacks.
The possession after that, Tech opened up with a 9 yard run by David Sims, before Washington lobbed a bomb to Stephen Hill. It would have been a 51 yard bomb had Hill not dropped it. Tech wisely decided not to pass again. Instead they ran, and ran, and ran - eight times in a row to be exact. On the eighth, Paul Johnson didn’t like how Clemson’s defense lined up and attempted tot call a time out. He didn’t get it, which ended up working out, as Smith took the pitch and dove into the endzone for his second touchdown of the night.
The Jackets would get the ball one more time before halftime, and capitalized on that possession as well. Washington had four total completions on the night; three came on this drive, including an incredible catch from Hill for 44 yards, bringing Hill’s amazing play to befuddling misplay ratio back into balance. Two keepers later, Washington was in the endzone again. The Jackets had scored on four consecutive possessions after going three and out on each of their first two.
I’d mentioned earlier Clemson had squandered their last possession of the half with a missed field goal, but they actually had one chance remaining with 37 seconds after all that. Sammy Watkins took the kickoff and promptly ran into one of his own blockers, perfectly encapsulating the Tigers’ first half. They went into the locker room with nothing; the halftime score: Tech 24, Clemson 3. Clemson had made mistake after mistake on offense, and Tech had punished them every time. The game felt like it was being written in reverse. The crowd couldn’t care less. They were enjoying every minute of this.
No one knows for sure what Swinney told his players in the locker room at half time. But Clemson opened the second half with the ball, and finally reached the endzone in just four plays. Tech’s defense made the mistake of letting Watkins get free just once and he burned them for a 48 yard touchdown. Was this the start of a major comeback for the Tigers?
Nope. On the third play of the next possession, Washington topped his 47 yard carry from earlier with a 56 yard carry. Two plays later, Sims dove into the endzone with Jonathan Meeks wrapped tightly around his ankle. Tech’s lead was back to three touchdowns. The Clemson comeback was DOA.
None of the problems Clemson experienced in the first half went away in the second. The Tigers went 50 yards in two minutes before fumbling again. With the ball back, Tech should have iced the game on the following possession. Instead, with the ball inside Clemson’s one yard line, Rennie Moore jumped the snap count and pulled the ball from Washington before he could make a pitch. Moore had been obviously, egregiously offside - that is, to everyone except the referee crew.
(I know, I’m being harsh on these referees. All they did was miss two major calls that would have been Tech touchdowns if called correctly. But these are judgement calls at the end of the day. This one was pretty close. Was Moore really offside? You be the judge.)
The Tigers were able to take advantage of their one stroke of good luck. They engineered a four minute, 97 yard drive that ended with a touchdown as the fourth quarter began. The score should have been 38-10; instead, it was now 31-17. Clemson’s hopes were still alive, if they could continue to capitalize on their opportunities.
But they couldn’t. They forced Tech into a 3 and out on the following possession, only to find themselves punting on their next possession after just six plays. With the ball back, Washington immediately threw a pass that was intercepted by Rashard Hall to the Georgia Tech nine yard line.... only for Boyd to immediately throw a pass that itself was intercepted by Jemea Thomas in the endzone. The Tigers had received a gift if there ever was one, and still, impressively, screwed it all up.
Tech was set to make the Tigers pay one last time, and they did it in the most painful, excruciating way possible. They ran the ball for short yardage - again, and again, and again, and again, and again. They burned the clock. They forced Clemson to use their precious remaining timeouts. And they kept grinding out yards. Finally, facing 4th and 6 at the Clemson 27, Washington kept the ball - and got five. It was a turnover on downs, but the Jackets’ main objective had been completed. They’d run sixteen plays and burned 9:04 off the clock, leaving the Tigers with just 1:29. It was a trademark Paul Johnson Death March drive.
With such little time remaining, Clemson needed to be mistake-free to have any chance. But no one starts playing perfectly 58 minutes and 30 seconds into a football game, and the Tigers didn’t either. On the fourth play of the drive, they gave up their fourth turnover of the night when Boyd’s pass found its way into Thomas’ hands for the second time. Washington got two plays in the victory formation and that was all she wrote. Now it was time for him to bask in the glory of a championship run ending upset as fans stormed the field to dance on the grave of Clemson’s BCS title hopes.
Clemson wouldn’t recover following the loss. Though they did defeat Virginia Tech a second time in the ACC championship to win their first title in 20 years, they would drop the other three of their final four games, including their rivalry game against South Carolina - their third straight in a skid that would stretch to five - and the mother of all Clemsonings against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Tech fared no better, also losing three of their final four, and blowing a 14 point fourth quarter lead to lose the Sun Bowl to Utah in overtime. It wasn’t the start of anything new for Washington or this Tech team - for them, that night against Clemson was as good as it got.
But damn, it sure was good.