Tiger, Tiger, burning fitfully

GoJackets.com previews Saturday's Clemson-Georgia Tech game

Like Brave Sir Robin of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the 2005 Clemson Tigers are famous far and wide for almost achieving greatness.

Sir Robin nearly fought the Dragon of Angor, nearly stood up to the vicious Chicken of Bristol, and personally wet himself at the battle of Baden Hill. The Tigers (4-3, 2-3 ACC) had similar success against Miami, Boston College and Wake Forest, dropping the three games by a collective 10 points.

Oddsmakers have the Jackets (4-2, 2-2) favored on homecoming by about three points, which means it's a pick 'em on a neutral site. Both teams have talented, experienced quarterbacks who run well but have underachieved as passers. Both have solid running games and tough defenses.

Tech has a better receiver corps mainly because they have Calvin Johnson. But Clemson's offensive line is older and much bigger.

This game (3:30 p.m., ABC) will come down to hearts and nerves, to which team can shake off recent close losses, play with more confidence and execute more precisely.

Hurricane Wilma blew somebody some good, as Tech's test in Miami was pushed back to Nov. 19. The Jackets got an extra week to heal up and a couple of more days to look at Clemson film. Clemson sort of took the week off, too, lazily rolling Temple 37-7.

Revenge for last year's dispiriting loss to Tech might give the Tigers some extra incentive. Or it just might be one of many corrosive drops of acid to their confidence. Tech has its own what-if game to look back on, the last-second loss to an inferior N.C. State team that Clemson handled easily.

Duke, Clemson ain't, nor even N.C. State. Georgia Tech can't expect another ridiculous comeback like last year's 28-24 win at Death Valley, where they scored three TDs in the last five minutes. They'll need a four-quarter effort Saturday to send the IPTAY horde back up I-85 with the familiar taste of ashes in their mouths.

Where they're coming from: Last year's 6-5 campaign -- with a loss to Duke -- led head coach Tommy Bowden to shake up his staff, replacing both coordinators. Clemson fans got their hopes up this September with an opening win over Texas A&M and a gutty comeback win against Maryland. Even their first loss, in overtime to Miami, seemed encouraging. But that started a three-game losing skid capped by a loss to Wake Forest, and nobody's happy in Tiger Land. The Tigers need two wins against Tech, Florida State and South Carolina to get anything resembling a decent bowl bid.

Tigers to watch: Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst has made vast strides this year, completing 67 percent of his passes for 8 touchdowns, against five interceptions. Place-kicker Jad Dean has made 29 of 35 career kicks, and nearly beat Texas A&M by himself, going six for six. Linebacker Anthony Waters, who was suspended against Temple, has 10.5 tackles for loss. Junior tailback Reggie Merriweather got his first 100-yard rushing game of the year against Temple, and will get most of the snaps with freshman James Davis (70 rushing ypg) out.

Who's hurt: Defensive tackle Donnell Clark (knee) is out for the year after tearing an ACL against Temple, a loss the Tigers can little afford from their thin, inexperienced defensive front. Davis broke his wrist against N.C. State, and will also sit out. The Tigers expect the return of senior tight end Cole Downer, who had his spleen removed after being injured in the Miami game. Tech gets defensive end Eric Henderson (ankle) back after a four-game absence, and just in time, as defensive tackle Joe Anoai (ankle) is doubtful. Nickelback Djay Jones (leg) is also doubtful.

Xs and Os: Clemson replaced Mike O'Cain with former Toledo offensive coordinator Rob Spence to try to improve the nation's 110th-best offense. So far, so good; the Tigers are third in the ACC with 396 yards per game, and 56th nationally in scoring at just over 27 ppg. Vic Koenning is the new defensive coordinator, with an easier task since the 2004 Clemson D was outstanding, and lost little to graduation. Results there are less stellar, as the Tigers give up 21 points a game and 341 yards offense.

Key matchups: Whitehurst against Tech's pass rush. The Jackets have 16 sacks and rank second nationally with 14 interceptions. The elusive Whitehurst doesn't run a lot, but had 58 yards rushing against Miami and has scored two touchdowns. Mainly, he uses his feet to avoid rushers and get off passes. Tech special teams against Clemson punt returner/wide receiver Chansi Stuckey. Stuckey is Clemson's second-leading receiver, and took a punt back for a touchdown against Texas A&M. Tech has done OK on punt coverage, but kickoff coverage has been so bad that Coach Chan Gailey has inserted some defensive starters on the unit, including safety Chris Reis. Freshman kicker Mohamed Yahiaoui can help everyone with another performance like he had at Duke, with five of six kickoffs going for touchbacks.

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