Running only gets Clemson so far

Clemson’s C.J. Spiller celebrates as he scores on an 83-yard touchdown run Monday in the second quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Photo by Sefton Ipock

Clemson’s C.J. Spiller celebrates as he scores on an 83-yard touchdown run Monday in the second quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

C.J. Spiller

Spiller scored on a record-breaking 83-yard run and eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau after just five rushes to revive the Clemson running game against one of the nation’s best defenses against the run.

Kodi Burns scored a touchdown for Auburn in its first possession of overtime, giving Tommy Tuberville’s Tigers a 23-20 victory.

On a first-and-10 play from the Auburn 31, Cullen Harper tried a screen pass to C.J. Spiller. Instead of settling for a modest gain, Spiller ran backward, losing 10 yards.

“Cullen (Harper) just had a bad night. Auburn had a lot to do with that, but he just didn’t play well. But I was proud of our running game. That was a pretty good performance against a good defense.”

— Clemson coach Tommy Bowden

43 — number of minutes it took to play the first quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

37 — number of passing yards Clemson had in the first half, its lowest output of the season.

10 — Number of yards Auburn punter Ryan Shoemaker’s kick traveled on his fourth effort of the night.

— The strategy seemed both odd and foolhardy.

Clemson, which engineered nine victories primarily with its passing game, decided to challenge Auburn’s 27th-ranked rushing defense Monday by taking the fight to the SEC Tigers on the ground. Certainly Tommy Bowden’s team had some success rushing during the regular season, but most of the big ground numbers came against weaker foes.

Auburn would confront the Orange and Purple with the quickest, most physical resistance it had faced in 13 contests.

As the first quarter ended, AU held a 3-0 edge and had limited Clemson to 22 yards on eight carries.

But as the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed try, try again.

The persistence of the ACC Tigers paid off — and almost won the game.

C.J. Spiller finally trumped the Auburn defense with an 83-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter, and after that James Davis and even quarterback Cullen Harper found plenty of open lanes and open field.

It was a good thing, too. Because while Auburn’s rushing defense is highly ranked, its pass defense is No. 6 in the nation and shut down Harper and company most of the night.

“Cullen just had a bad night,” Bowden said. “Auburn had a lot to do with that, but he just didn’t play well. But I was proud of our running game. That was a pretty good performance against a good defense.”

For Clemson to win the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it became apparent the Upstate-based Tigers had to do by playing smash mouth football on both sides of the ball.

The defense did its part, and the running game picked up the offensive slack, with Bowden’s Tigers racking up 141 first-half rushing yards. Spiller’s long TD run was a Clemson bowl record and all-time best for a Chick-fil-A Bowl, and helped the ACC Tigers take a 7-3 lead into halftime.

After Auburn went up 10-7 in the third quarter, Clemson continued to stick to its battering-ram approach, and that strategy continued to work.

“We were close to 200 yards and had 40 carries, so I was pleased with that,” Bowden said. “I think if our passing game had come close to matching what we did running, we’d have had a better shot at winning.”

An 11-play drive that resulted in the tying field goal early in the fourth quarter was all rushing except for an 8-yard pass play, and it was also the march that saw Spiller eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark.

Later Davis would find the end zone from 3 feet out to hand Clemson a 17-10 lead, but Auburn ran its way back into contention with a rush-oriented drive that knotted things up at 17-all with 8:27 to go.

Neither offense could solve the opposing defense down the stretch, setting up the first overtime situation in Chick-fil-A Bowl history.

Clemson entered overtime with 185 yards on the ground.

It exited with 187 — one of the best rushing performances against Auburn in 2007.

Unfortunately for fans of the Pickens County Tigers, it wasn’t quite enough.

“They had that one big run, but overall I thought we defensed ’em pretty good,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. “It was a heckuva ballgame.”

© 2007 OrangeAndWhite.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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