The Vols, who entered the game as 4.5 point favorites, not only never had the lead, they never had the ball with a chance to take the lead. Clemson jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter advantage and never relinquished control of the contest.
Tennessee played hard, but Clemson played harder, and smarter, and shorter — getting the best of both the kicking game and field position as a season-long and traditional UT strength faltered.
Meanwhile, the weaknesses that had produced the darkest hours of the 2003 campaign came back like a black cloud on day two of 2004. The Vols incurred 119 yards in penalties most of which directly resulted from a a lack of discipline or a loss of poise. Pass protection was spotty at best and the ground game was MIA as the Vols lost more yards on six sacks (minus 43) than they gained in 26 carries (plus 38).
A defense that has been consistent, if not dominate, was neither against the Tigers. Tennessee surrendered big plays in bundles and applied little pressure — recording only one sack — on Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. Meanwhile utilitarian fullback Chad Jasmin looked like an All-World back, gaining a career-high 131 yards in 15 carries against a UT front that played soft off tackle. Jasmin, a senior, had never gained 100 yards in game before Friday. The Vols leading rusher was Cedric Houston who had 24 yards in six carries and one lost fumble.
John Chavis' charges were kept off balance the entire first half by Clemson's no-huddle offense, which prevented the Vols from inserting substitutes or inserting personnel packages to address down and distance dictates. It also kept UT's down linemen in stances for inordinate periods of time awaiting the snap of the ball. This may partly explain the lack of surge up front and the tepid pass rush.
When the Tigers needed a big play they got it from one of their talented receivers, or through the kicking game. Airese Currie, Derrick Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood combined for 13 catches and 183 yards. Hamilton also returned a punt 58 yards to set up a Clemson score.
Conversely, Tennessee's leading pass catcher, James Banks, was suspended in the first half and only accounted for 27 yards in the second half as his downward spiral in the 2003 season finally hit bottom. Likewise, UT's normally rock solid kicking game hit rock bottom with All-American Dustin Colquitt averaging only 40 yards per kick with a net average under 33 yards. Reliable redshirt freshman James Wilhoit missed a 35-yard field goal attempt that followed the Vols longest drive of the game (consuming eight minutes and 62 yards in 16 plays).
Play calling and execution also favored the Tigers. When Clemson was faced with a third and six at UT's 15, coach Tommy Bowden dusted off the fumble-roskie as Jasmine took a direct snap from the center and went untouched against the flow to pay dirt. When the Vols were faced with a third and two from Clemson's 3 in the third quarter, they went with a pass from the shotgun formation which eliminated any threat of a run. Clausen managed to squeeze a pass between coverage that Mark Jones appeared to scoop before it hit the carpet, but the pass was ruled incomplete. The Vols were subsequently flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct when arguing the call and Wilhoit missed the field goal.
The officials also missed what appeared to be a Clemson touchdown on an earlier pass play. However, the real question regarding the call was why, when the Vols were in four-down territory, would they disdain the run by going to the shotgun? Why would a team that has built it's success on the run not at least show play action in such a situation?
Faced with similar circumstances this season against Miami, Tennessee went to the end around with Derrick Tinsley carrying the ball for the winning score. Why not fake the same play before passing against a Clemson team that was sure to be looking for it? Tennessee's contrasting approach almost seemed to indicate that Vol coaches felt like they had to gamble to knock off Miami, but they weren't willing to gamble despite trailing Clemson the entire game and with only one bowl victory since winning the 1998 national title.
It was the Vols fourth loss in their last five bowl games and will drop Tennessee out of the top ten. A change in bowl preparation appeared to produce little in the way of positive results as the Vols were inconsistent and unfocused. Even a slap in the face from Clemson back Duane Coleman during the pregame warm-up failed to serve as a wake-up call for the Volunteers.
The ensuing four-hour contest was injury upon insult.