Give Spiller credit - and then give him some more

November 8, 2009 

  • Bob Gillespie

CLEMSON | THERE HAVE BEEN times this season when you had to wonder if C.J. Spiller got too much credit for Clemson's successes.

Then there are nights like Saturday - when you wonder if he gets enough.

Playing before a Memorial Stadium crowd of 77,000 and a national audience on ESPN, the Tigers' running back showed why his nickname ought to be "Prime Time" - and why Clemson printing up several thousand "Spiller for Heisman" posters in the preseason is looking like a pretty good investment.

And why it's looking like a couple of nice postseason trips might be on tap for the Tigers.

How about a date in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation for the Tigers' senior? How about a first ACC Championship Game appearance in Tampa, Fla., for Spiller and his teammates?

Before Clemson's fourth-quarter, three-touchdown explosion to bury Florida State 40-24, though, it was easy to overlook Spiller - until he capped his record-setting night by high-stepping for the Tigers' final points on a 5-yard touchdown run, then flashing a brief but poignant Heisman pose.

If you're scoring at home, Spiller had a career-best 165 yards rushing and 312 all-purpose yards. The last time anyone contributed almost that much yardage to the Tigers' cause? Oh, that's right: Spiller, who had 310 yards in a 40-37 overtime win at Miami.

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden summed it up: "I thought Spiller was the difference in the ball game. I doubt if anybody is playing better than him in the country."

So let's take stock: In the Tigers' two biggest wins of the season, the 5-foot-11, 195-pounder produced 622 yards - more than any other player on the Clemson team, except receiver Jacoby Ford (767 yards), has managed THE ENTIRE SEASON.

How did Spiller contribute Saturday? Let us count the ways:

In the second quarter, he darted off the right side, shook free from a pair of would-be tacklers and jetted 45 yards to the FSU 19.

On Clemson's first possession of the second half, trailing 17-14, Spiller caught a pass from Parker down the left sideline and accelerated for a 58-yard touchdown.

By the end of the third quarter, Spiller had 263 all-purpose yards - yet, because Florida State led 24-21 and Clemson was its own worst enemy on offense, his good works seemed fated to be lost in another late-season defeat.

That's the burden Spiller carries: At times, he seems like an expensive hood ornament on a clunker. Clemson is 6-3, but an embarrassing 24-21 loss at Maryland and two near-misses against Top 25 teams have made this seem like another underachieving Tigers team - certainly not one whose best player merits Heisman consideration.

The past month, Spiller has not allowed such perceptions. Not against Miami ... and not vs. Florida State.

Much of Saturday night, and this season, a turf toe injury was obvious when he stepped gingerly out of bounds rather than lowering a shoulder for extra yards. There is only so much of Spiller to expend, and he seems determined not to waste any on needless heroics.

But when it mattered, Spiller was there.

When Rashard Hall's interception gave Clemson the ball at the FSU 24, it was Spiller carrying three consecutive times to the Seminoles' 11. From there, backup Andre Ellington scored two carries later.

Then, after FSU was forced to punt, Spiller's 13-yard dart-and-dance moved Clemson across midfield, before Ellington went 43 yards to set up another score. Clemson led 33-24, and DeAndre McDaniel's interception - and Spiller's signature score - sealed the deal.

All night, while his team squandered opportunities - including three trips into the red zone that produced zero points - Spiller was the constant. Sometimes numbers lie, but not in his case: of the Tigers' 483 yards, Spiller accounted for nearly 65 percent.

"The happiest I was," Bowden said, "was when he was off the field, (because) I knew he couldn't get the ball."

How unlikely is a Heisman for Clemson's running back? As unlikely as the same Tigers who lost to Maryland being two wins, at most, from the ACC's Atlantic Division title? Mark Ingram, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy are way out in front in the Heisman chase, but even an invitation to New York for Spiller would be nice, wouldn't it?

A trip to Tampa wouldn't be bad, either.

Thanks to Spiller, both expeditions now appear possible. Give him credit for that. Not too much, of course ... but not too little, either.

Listen to Gillespie 8 a.m.-9 a.m. Wednesdays on SportsRadio1400 The Team.

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