Davis, Spiller deliver powerful one-two punch
Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller ran over and around Georgia Tech to keep the Tigers in the running for the ACC title, writes Mark Schlabach.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Add this super power to Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson's arsenal of extraordinary abilities -- he's invisible.
Yellow Jackets quarterback Reggie Ball couldn't see him in Clemson's Death Valley on Saturday night. Neither could Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Patrick Nix. Now, Heisman Trophy voters can no longer see college football's most talented wide receiver, either.
For the first time in his college career, Johnson was held without a catch in No. 12 Clemson's 31-7 victory over the No. 13 Yellow Jackets in front of a sold-out crowd of 83,000 at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers pressured Ball so relentlessly that he had problems seeing Johnson, even when the 6-foot-5 receiver wasn't being double-covered. Ball threw to Johnson only four times, just once in the second half.
The Tigers had no problems getting the football into the hands of their best players. Sophomore James Davis ran for a career-high 216 yards and two touchdowns, and freshman C.J. Spiller ran for 116 yards and scored a pair of 50-yard touchdowns in the second half, one on a screen pass. The Tigers ran for 321 yards against a Georgia Tech defense that had allowed only one of its previous six opponents to run for more than 101.
It was the first time Clemson had a 200-yard runner and 100-yard rusher in the same game.
"Our backs are pretty special," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "That's God-given [talent] out there."
The Tigers (7-1, 4-1 ACC) were dominant in a game that might have been a preview of the Dec. 2 ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla. With three ACC games left, the Tigers are one of three teams in the Atlantic Division with one loss in conference play. But Boston College has a tie-breaker over Clemson; the Eagles beat the Tigers 34-33 in double overtime on Sept. 9.
"Yeah, but there's a lot of football left to be played," Bowden said. "Anything can happen."
A lot can happen for the Tigers because of their one-two punch in the backfield. Davis and Spiller gashed the Yellow Jackets likely they've rarely been carved up under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
Davis had runs of 53, 30 and 54 yards. Spiller scored on a 50-yard run to make it 17-0 and later caught a screen pass, broke two tackles and scored a 50-yard touchdown.
"C.J. did a great job of coming in and keeping me off the field and giving us both fresh legs," Davis said. "He's much faster. He's much quicker. 'The next Reggie Bush.' That's what I call him. That guy is amazing and there's a lot more coming. I've seen him make a lot more people miss in practice."
Spiller, a Jacksonville, Fla., native who spurned Florida on national signing day to ink with the Tigers, believes he and Davis are as potent as Bush and LenDale White, who helped lead Southern California to the 2004 national title and the BCS title game again last season.
"That's where I see us right now," Spiller said. "We've got the same combination."
With its punishing running game and stout defense, Clemson certainly seems to be the most balanced team in the ACC. It was the fourth time in five games that the Tigers ran for more than 300 yards, and the fifth time in eight games they've held an opponent to fewer than 10 points.
"We've never been this good on defense," Bowden said. "None of my teams."
The Tigers were at their best against Georgia Tech, which had won five games in a row since losing to Notre Dame in its opener. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said his game plan was as much about harassing Ball as it was containing Johnson. Clemson's defensive line and linebackers clogged the area between the tackles, making it tougher for Ball to see his passing lanes.
And Koenning said the Tigers wanted to force Ball outside because they didn't think he was very good throwing on the run.
"They say he's [5-foot-11]," Koenning said of Ball, who completed 12-of-25 passes for 117 yards with one touchdown and one interception. "He's probably [5-9].
"We were going to pack the throwing lanes so seeing inside routes was going to be really hard for him. Even with a [6-5] receiver, it was going to be really hard to find him. We questioned his ability to throw on the run, so we were going to run him down."
With Ball's long pass coming down, Clemons ran right at Johnson and hit him in the face mask. Clemons was penalized 15 yards for pass interference, giving the Yellow Jackets a first down.
After that, though, Johnson was a non-factor for the rest of the game.
"They were able to play him very tough," Gailey said. "They were able to double team him, no matter if he was lined up inside or outside. Give credit to their defense."
After the pass interference penalty, Georgia Tech threw to Johnson only twice more in the first half -- on their fourth offensive play and again when defensive end Gaines Adams batted down an attempted screen pass with only 22 seconds to play in the half. In the second half, Ball didn't throw a pass Johnson's way until there were only 31 seconds to go in the third quarter.
"He got open a few times, and our guys didn't do as good of a job in coverage," Koenning said. "He got open a couple of times in the fourth quarter, but I think he didn't feel like taking a blow."
Ball was sacked only once and ran 12 times for eight yards. After the game, the senior couldn't explain why more of his passes didn't go Johnson's way.
"They made plays and we didn't," Ball said. "Calvin is a great player. But one player isn't going to alter the outcome of the game. Yeah, he's the best receiver in the game, but we've got 10 other players ready to make plays. You just have nights like this."
"We just never had a rhythm," said Gailey. "Clemson did a good job of keeping us off balance with their pass coverages and blitzes. We've really got to study this film to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.