JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The honeymoon unofficially concluded with Dabo Swinney running both hands through his hair, then turning and shaking the hands of several Clemson seniors as they traipsed off the field.
The makings had been there for a storybook ending to the Tigers’ pendulous season, if not just Swinney’s first game as the team’s full-time coach.
For a Gator Bowl viewed mostly as a reward for the departing seniors who sifted Clemson from the ashes, a 26-21 loss to Nebraska that seemingly created more questions than answers about the program’s direction cannot be what the Tigers had in mind.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” junior receiver Jacoby Ford said. “We’ll be alright, but we’ve got a lot of things to fix.”
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Among them a streak of three consecutive bowl losses.
Clemson (7-6) was unable to pull off the miracle finish, failing in four tries to muster the go-ahead touchdown after earning a first-and-goal from the Nebraska 10 with less than two minutes remaining.
Yet that there was little sign of emotional heartbreak afterward provided perhaps the best indication of how the game might merely have amounted to the bridge to an offseason in which several choices will ultimately shape the Tigers for 2009 and beyond.
Ford and running back C.J. Spiller showed why their decisions regarding early NFL draft entry are legitimate as well as vital.
Swinney said he can now “finish the staff,” highlighted by his selection of a defensive coordinator — news that could come as early as the weekend.
The job is believed Alabama assistant Kevin Steele’s to turn down, and Steele is not expected to accept or decline an offer until after tonight’s Sugar Bowl.
Furthermore, with Clemson’s offensive doldrums against the Cornhuskers (9-4) reminiscent of what sparked this year’s spiral in the first place, it remains to be seen whether Swinney brings in an offensive coordinator to help or supplant interim play-caller Billy Napier with those duties.
“We didn’t come down here to lose, that’s for sure,” Swinney said. “But you don’t take your ball and go home. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
“I’m really excited about the foundation we’ve laid the last six, seven weeks. And as sloppy as we were, we never quit, and that’s a great trait to have.”
What was billed as a showdown between Nebraska’s prolific offense and Clemson’s stingy defense materialized as quite the opposite.
The Tigers slammed the door for most of the first half but were unable to capitalize because their previously resurgent offense was stuck in neutral against a Nebraska defense known for its liabilities against the pass.
Clemson tallied 206 yards of total offense, nearly 150 yards shy of the Cornhuskers’ average.
Eleven of the Tigers’ 13 non-scoring drives were three plays or less, and its two offensive touchdowns were both the result of prime field position yielded from forced turnovers.
Senior running back James Davis fell significantly short of the 112 yards needed to break the school’s career rushing record, registering 26 yards on 12 carries. The Tigers finished with just 4 rushing yards overall, having lost 45 on five sacks.
“We didn’t lay an egg,” senior receiver Aaron Kelly said. “We just didn’t play well at all.”
Swinney likewise lamented the missed opportunities, but he seemed to believe the big plays the defense gave up early in the second half were equally as costly.
Nebraska, which had scored fewer than 28 points just once this season, trailed 14-3 at halftime with a mere three first downs.
That quickly changed in the second half, as the Cornhuskers snagged momentum with a six-play touchdown drive.
Clemson regained its advantage when Ford hauled in a 41-yard touchdown catch following a muffed punt.
But contrary to standard form, the defense kept bending, surrendering a 58-yard run that set up another touchdown drive.
Nebraska then netted field goals on its next two drives to go up 23-21 late in the third quarter.
“We had a lot of momentum and just could not sustain it in the second half,” Swinney said. “Just didn’t play well enough to win, it’s as simple as that. We had so many opportunities but didn’t play well enough to get it done.”
The defensive effort nearly came full circle, though, when backup corner Byron Maxwell scooped up a fumble by backup Nebraska quarterback Patrick Witt and scooted untouched for an apparent 31-yard touchdown with 12:05 left.
But replay officials ruled Witt’s left knee had hit the ground before the forced fumble, negating Clemson’s go-ahead score.
Nebraska kicker Alex Henery tacked on his fourth field goal with 5:20 remaining, forcing the Tigers to need a touchdown to avoid defeat.
Clemson avoided elimination when Ford grabbed a 16-yard catch on fourth-and-4 from the Tigers’ 43 with 2:19 left, then seemed on the verge of victory when senior Aaron Kelly nabbed a 17-yard catch at the Nebraska 10 the next play.
But quarterback Cullen Harper lost 16 yards on an ill-advised second-down sack, and Spiller failed to corral a catchable jump-ball in the end zone on third down.
“I can make that play in my sleep,” Spiller said.
Instead, Clemson’s season has been put to bed, but hardly to rest.