WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. | So long, driver’s seat. Hello, hot seat.
If Clemson players thought the meltdown following the Maryland loss was troubling, they had better learn to tune out the noise for another week.
While not mathematically eliminated, the Tigers’ chances to win the Atlantic Division likely went out the window with Thursday’s 12-7 loss at No. 21 Wake Forest.
And in a season that was defined as ACC title game or bust, Clemson’s anemic performance left little reason to believe that another close-but-no-cigar rally can happen the second half of this season.
“There’s not a whole lot you can tell them,” coach Tommy Bowden said.
“Let’s circle the wagons and come out swinging.”
With five ACC games remaining, how much good that will do is up for debate.
What is not up for debate: Clemson squandered its chance to jump back into the conference fray.
With the loss, the Tigers (3-3, 1-2) dropped two games behind the division favorite Demon Deacons (4-1, 2-0) and lost the tiebreaker to boot.
Even if Clemson wins out, it needs Wake Forest to lose three conference games.
“We’re on the outside looking in,” junior corner Crezdon Butler said. “From here on, we have got to depend on other teams to lose and just win some games.”
They will do so amid questions about Bowden’s job security, as the manner in which Clemson lost Thursday figures to stick with the team as long as outcome itself.
The Tigers carried out their familiar pattern for losing crucial games as they failed to generate offense before surrendering a decisive fourth-quarter score.
This time, with Clemson leading 7-6, Wake Forest mounted a 15-play, 78-yard drive, going ahead for good on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Riley Skinner to D.J. Boldin with 5:28 remaining.
Clemson salvaged one final gasp when receiver Xavier Dye defied the odds and converted a fourth-and-17. But the Tigers followed with four consecutive incompletions to seal their demise.
Once the nation’s preseason No. 9 team, the Tigers might not be assured of bowl eligibility with games against Georgia Tech, at Florida State, at Boston College and against USC among their final six.
“Right now, times are tough,” quarterback Cullen Harper said. “But that’s what tests your character.”
In truth, the Tigers had to be thankful they were not put out of their misery in the first half.
Clemson trailed 3-0 despite being dominated on both sides of the ball.
Through four series, the Tigers had minus-11 yards of offense. Injuries then compounded their ability to mask a patchwork offensive line as starting left guard Cory Lambert and right guard Mason Cloy both went out with first-half injuries. Running back C.J. Spiller followed.
Meanwhile, the defense averted disaster, allowing one field goal after Wake Forest twice drove the ball inside the Clemson 5.
When Jacoby Ford held on to 7-yard touchdown catch with 7 seconds remaining in the third quarter, it appeared the Tigers might snatch a victory.
It did not happen.
Wake Forest closed within 7-6 when a Harper interception set up a 32-yard field goal with 12:57 remaining.
The Demon Deacons regained possession with 10:33 left and received the break they needed when Clemson safety Haydrian Lewis slipped on a third-and-24 from the Wake 8 and allowed D.J. Boldin to scoot forward for a 28-yard conversion.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s head sunk, as likely did the Tigers’ hearts.
Wake Forest converted two more third downs before the Deacons caught Clemson blitzing on first-and-goal. Boldin caught a quick swing pass inside the right flat and cut inside safety Michael Hamlin for the game-winner.
Bowden has said that the long walk to the locker room after the 2003 loss to Wake Forest was his most challenging moment as Clemson coach.
But five years later, his tenure may have come full circle.
“We tried everything and nothing really worked,” Bowden said. “So, we’ve got to go back and find an answer. Some way.”