CLEMSON | Dabo Swinney leaned forward, his elbows on the table, as he pondered a reporter's postgame question. When he was done, Swinney reclined in his chair, glaring at the ceiling.
Clemson's coach was asked which of Saturday's missed opportunities came to mind first. And in this instance, Swinney's extended, multiple-choice answer had little to do with his loquaciousness.
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier said when the Tigers review Saturday's 14-10 defeat against No. 15 TCU, it will be painfully clear that the outcome boiled down to a few players failing to come through on the decisive plays.
Perhaps, but those shortcomings will strike a familiar refrain as the Tigers again had issues with their red-zone offense and costly fourth-quarter defensive lapses.
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It was another tight loss to another ranked team - and another chance for skeptics to question whether Clemson is making progress.
"Close calls don't count - bottom line," Swinney said. "We've got to win some of these games if we're going to be the program we want to be. And we're going to become that program."
At this stage, the Tigers (2-2, 1-1 ACC) remain a program that is unable to come through with a clutch victory.
The Horned Frogs (3-0) handed Clemson a seventh loss in its the past eight games decided by a touchdown or less. Coupled with its 30-27 defeat two weeks ago at then-No. 15 Georgia Tech, the Tigers have lost eight straight to ranked opponents.
If there was any consolation Saturday, it was that the rest of their ACC Atlantic Division brethren might not merit a ranking either. Clemson returns to conference play Saturday at Maryland.
"Our goals are still on the table as far as the ACC goes," senior tight end Michael Palmer said. "But we still have to play better."
Clemson lacked an answer for TCU quarterback Andy Dalton's sudden running prowess (86 yards on 19 carries), and the Horned Frogs inched ahead 14-10 with 12:46 remaining on a 25-yard Dalton touchdown pass to Antoine Hicks.
While a late holding penalty proved the offense's death knell against Georgia Tech, the Tigers ultimately will pin their Saturday failures on two trips inside the Horned Frogs' 20 that failed to net points - including what appeared to be the game-winner with two minutes remaining.
Amid a second-half downpour, Richard Jackson missed a 34-yard field goal with 9:58 remaining that would have left Clemson needing only another field goal. Jackson went 6-for-6 a week ago.
"You're the MVP one week and the goat the next," Jackson said. "You're only as good as your last kick."
Thus the Tigers still needed a touchdown after Jacoby Ford's 23-yard catch and tacked-on horse-collar tackle penalty gave them first down at the TCU 13 with three minutes to go.
After running back C.J. Spiller (112 yards on a career-high 26 carries) lost 3 yards on a sweep left, Clemson wound up with three cracks at the end zone in obvious passing situations.
The play Swinney wants back most came next as tight end Dwayne Allen slipped on his cut toward the goal line as Kyle Parker's pass zipped by the spot Allen was supposed to be.
On fourth down, Parker's scrambling jump-ball into the end zone fell incomplete with 1:55 to go.
"We just need to push it in there, and we've had a little trouble with that," Parker said.
But Clemson held TCU to a three-and-out and regained possession at its 43 with 1:03 remaining.
Continuing the pattern, receiver Terrance Ashe dropped a first-down at the TCU 36. And on third-and-1 from TCU's 48, a miscommunication on the snap count culminated in Spiller falling on a fumbled snap, forcing Clemson into a fourth-and-7 from the Horned Frogs' 46.
A Hail Mary to Ashe then fell incomplete at the TCU 13 with 0:02 left.
Swinney had labeled the game a chance to "check the oil" for his program. And for an offense that entered with five touchdowns in three games and just one score in eight true red-zone ventures, the check-engine function lit up again.
"This week, it was just a matter of guys going and making plays," Napier said. "Our players will tell you that. They know. And obviously any time you lose a game, you look in the mirror and say you could do a better job coaching.
"If you want to be an elite program in this country, those are the kind of games you have to go win."