There was a sequence in last Thursday's Clemson-North Carolina State game that encapsulated all of our perceptions of Clemson Tigers football and the ongoing drama associated with it.
With Clemson leading 13-7 with seven minutes left in the third quarter, N.C. State had the ball just past midfield after an apparent officiating gaffe took an 83-yard touchdown off the board. The refs said Wolfpack receiver Bryan Underwood had stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone, when he most certainly had not, and thus a likely one-point lead was taken away. Minus the officiating error, it was what we've come to expect from Clemson football: allowing a backbreaking score on the road against an inferior opponent.
But what happened shortly after is what the new Clemson is supposed to be. Three plays later, defensive end Vic Beasley crashed through the line and knocked the ball loose from N.C. State QB Pete Thomas, giving the ball to the Tigers; five more plays later, Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass from Tajh Boyd, more or less crushing N.C. State's upset hopes. Through obvious luck and then through skill, a potential 14-13 deficit turned into a 20-7 lead. Upset averted, Clemson moved to 3-0, its dream season not yet ruined.
Like Louisville fans with talk of the Cardinals' historically terrible schedule, Clemson fans are surely sick of all the talk of "Clemsoning," the apt term the folks at The Solid Verbal podcast put into Urban Dictionary a few years ago as a result of the Tigers' tendency to fail to meet expectations and suffer ugly losses to weaker teams. It's become so prevalent that even ESPN broadcasters Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and David Pollack seemed to spend half of their airtime last Thursday night debating the merits of the term, whether it's fair or unfair and whether Clemson is past all that.
We can't get away from it, until Clemson goes through an entire season not succumbing to it, which, come to think of it, already happened. It happened last year, when Clemson went 11-2, losing only to Florida State and South Carolina, and played only two games to a single-digit margin (LSU in the bowl game, and Auburn in the opener).
Yet the feeling of impending doom just won't go away.
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For Clemson football to succeed in 2013 and move past that reputation, there were two players the Tigers needed to emerge as consistent stars, above all else, and they played the biggest roles in the key third-quarter sequence at N.C. State: Beasley and Bryant.
While the defense, under coordinator Brent Venables, has made great strides since the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia, it's hardly impenetrable. But giving up yards doesn't mean it can't win games. What Clemson most needed was impact playmakers who can make tackles behind the line of scrimmage and force turnovers, masking the deficiencies elsewhere. Entering the season, nobody was more important in contributing to that goal than Beasley, who has exceeded even the wildest expectations through three games.
Last year, Beasley played as a situational pass rusher, recording only 14 tackles, but even in that limited action he finished with eight sacks. He's still not going to be an anchor against the run or anything, but he's broken out as one of the best pass rushers in America, with five sacks for -33 yards, the forced fumble against N.C. State and even three pass breakups. The Clemson secondary may be susceptible to big plays, but the problem will be diminished if Beasley, tackle Grady Jarrett, linebackers Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony and the rest of the front seven get after opposing quarterbacks and force mistakes, putting the ball back in the hands of Boyd and the offense.
In 2011, Clemson ranked 66th in average turnover margin, 76th in sacks per game and 86th in tackles for loss per game. In three games this season, Clemson ranks eighth, third and fifth in those categories, respectively, with Beasley as the catalyst.
That celebrated offense needed something too, though. Behind coordinator Chad Morris and quarterback Tajh Boyd, the Tigers have one of the smartest and most creative offenses in the sport, but on top of concerns about their offensive line, they needed to replace DeAndre Hopkins, their all-time leading receiver, who caught 82 passes for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, and give Sammy Watkins a wing man in the receiving corps. An improved defense wouldn't mean much if the offense couldn't keep pace.
The best candidate, especially when Charone Peake tore his ACL in Week 2, was 6-foot-5, 200-pound junior Martavis Bryant, a former four-star recruit who gained a ridiculous 305 yards on only 10 catches in 2012. Clearly, he had the raw talent, but like Beasley he was not a consistent presence on the field or a complete part of the game plan. That's all changing now. After a rough opener in which he was held without a catch against Georgia, Bryant has equaled his sophomore total with 10 catches, going for 160 yards and two touchdowns -- not enough, yet, but an encouraging step forward after his shaky opener.
Make no mistake, with Boyd a senior, Watkins likely headed to the NFL and Morris and Venables possibly coveted for head coaching positions, this is Clemson's best chance to push itself to new heights. If boom-or-bust players like Bryant and Beasley can become consistently great playmakers, Clemson football may be able to put itself over the top and, at least for this season, destroy the last remnants of the negative reputation associated with it.
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Ultimately, maybe we'll look back on that missed call/Beasley forced fumble/Bryant touchdown as the death of Clemsoning, the sequence that saw Clemson get some luck and then capitalize by closing the door on a decent but inferior team. Maybe the Tigers, who already have one of the season's best wins over Georgia, will follow that double-digit road win against N.C. State with decisive wins at Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia in their other traps, similar to what they were able to do last year in ACC play. Or maybe the Tigers will lose at Syracuse next week.
All options are still on the table, meaning that Clemson may be the only team in the country worth watching every week for the possibility of something dramatic happening in every game against an FBS opponent. Every game supposedly matters in college football, yet for many contests, as we saw last Saturday, the outcome is never actually in doubt. But despite last year's consistent record, we're still trained to never totally be sure what's going to happen in a Clemson game, and last Thursday's win, which shifted on one controversial play, was evidence that we can't yet shake that feeling. This is the best Clemson team in years, but we can't yet be 100-percent confident.
So you can watch Oregon and Baylor for unstoppable, flashy offenses; you can watch Alabama for systematic beatdowns; you can watch Stanford and Wisconsin for power; and you can watch LSU for a combination of power and Les Miles' unpredictability.
But, week-to-week, watching Clemson fight against its past may be the most enthralling drama in college football.
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