AUBURN, Ala. - Clemson's chance to defeat a nationally ranked opponent on the road sailed wide of the south end zone goal posts at Jordan-Hare Stadium late Saturday evening.
Chandler Catanzaro’s 32-yard field goal attempt disappeared into the Auburn student section in overtime, leaving Auburn with a stirring 27-24 victory and Clemson stunned.
Not to be lost was as gallant an effort as any in Clemson’s history, certainly as strong as any in Dabo Swinney’s run as coach. Clemson might not have made a statement with a victory, but it made a different kind in the way it plays football.
Clemson stood toe to toe with a 16th-ranked opponent from the powerful SEC and never backed down. It proved to be as physical as Auburn, and that has not always been the case with Clemson.
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Going in, Swinney said his club did not need to wave the flag for a much-disrespected ACC, but that is what Clemson did. While its brethren proved to be easy fodder for national powers in the season’s first three weeks, Clemson stood tall.
"There’s a lot of pain and a lot of hurt in that room right now, guys who worked really hard and fought really hard to win this game," Swinney said. "Anytime you lose a game in overtime, especially on the road when you’ve got a chance to win it, it’s a painful thing. But there’s nothing final or fatal unless you let it be that way."
Years from now the record books will show Clemson lost another close game to an SEC opponent, extending its losing streak against Auburn to 14 consecutive games dating to 1951. The books also will show consecutive overtime losses to Auburn, the last in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
What it will not show is Clemson’s program under Swinney might have arrived before a vocal crowd of 87,451 on the Alabama plains.
It was in the fourth quarter that Clemson’s colors showed brightest. The Tigers were beaten, down a touchdown but appearing to be down and out. Its defense was exhausted from a third-quarter blitz that saw Auburn roll up 258 yards of offense and three touchdowns, turning a 17-3 halftime deficit into a 24-17 advantage.
Clemson fans have witnessed the scenario before when the Tigers roll over and concede defeat. Not this time.
Quarterback Kyle Parker continued to play after suffering injuries to his shoulder, ribs, hand, head and all parts in between. He appeared groggy. There were plays when it looked as if Parker would not make it to the line of scrimmage. Yet he soldiered on, and rallied the Clemson offense.
"He was just beat up. It was a gutsy performance by him," Swinney said of Parker, who finished 21 of 35 passing for 227 yards and two touchdowns. "He hung in there and kept competing. He missed a couple of plays, but boy he made a lot of plays, too. I’m awfully proud of the leadership he showed tonight. He showed a lot of leadership and this team rallied around that."
Parker engineered a nine play, 77-yard drive that concluded with a 2-yard touchdown run by Andre Ellington. When it appeared Auburn had put Clemson away, the teams were tied at 24 and headed to overtime.
"We physically, in the fourth quarter, imposed our will to go get that last touchdown," Swinney said. "We had some guys make some great plays and some great runs and some great blocks with their backs up against the wall. So, when the adversity came, they didn’t wilt. They rose up. They stood up and that’s a good sign to me that we’ve got the right stuff."
In overtime, Auburn took the ball first and scored on Wes Byrum’s 39-yard field goal. Then it was Clemson’s turn and it appeared the Tigers were headed to victory when three plays left them at the Auburn 8.
But one of Parker’s few mistakes proved pivotal. His third-down pass sailed away from the outstretched arms of an open Jaron Brown in the end zone. On fourth down, Catanzaro appeared to send the game into a second overtime when his 27-yard field goal attempt split the uprights.
Game officials, who first ruled Auburn was offside on the kick, instead said center Matt Skinner double-clutched before he snapped the ball. The 5-yard penalty for "illegal snap" pushed Catanzaro’s next attempt to 32 yards.
This field-goal attempt was not close. So, instead of making a statement that Clemson is among the nation’s best, it merely showed the Tigers are ready to play at the highest level.
The next step will be for Clemson to win one of these games.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)