Television cameras always find a way to capture the universal fan reaction whenever their team is involved in a close game. You have the hands clasped in prayer shot; the ‘Oh no, I just can’t look’ shot; or the ‘Great Stare in Disbelief’ shot.
Up in the coaches’ booth or down on the sideline, coaches must remain stoic because they have to find a way to manage the game while making the proper play call to win. But what is it really like for a play caller, knowing that what he decides could make or break a win or a loss?
Nobody is better equipped to answer that question than Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables or co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who have been charged with the task quite often this season. Clemson is 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, the first Tigers team to accomplish that since 1993.
“I like it, but I trust our guys, too,” Venables said in a quiet moment after Clemson survived against Florida State. “To a certain degree we’re used to it, but that’s exciting. That’s why you coach. That’s one of the fun parts about coaching. The crowd and all that, I’m oblivious to all that. It’s just trusting your guys, and trying to help put them in position, but ultimately they make the plays, they beat the blocks, they cover people, they tackle -- not the coaches.
“You can screw it up for them with bad calls, but there are no magical calls. When it’s all good, it’s because somebody does something really well. Sometimes the other team messes up, too, and you’re feasting on them.”
Once again, Elliott and Venables had to make crucial calls to beat Florida State. Trailing 34-29 with 3:23 to go, Clemson got the ball knowing it needed to score a touchdown to win. Elliott decided it was time to target tight end Jordan Leggett. Three pass plays went to him. He caught all three, including the go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:06 remaining.
“We called it thinking we were going to get a specific coverage, and we got lucky and we got the coverage,” Elliott explained. “He’s open because the guy inside of him does a great job of running his route full speed and creating a potential pick on the safety that gets him wide open.”
When it came time to make the call, was his heart racing? Were his palms sweaty?
“I think the palms were sweaty with the last 43 seconds of the game when you don’t have control of it and you’re up there and watching the defense scrap and fight and claw for everything they can get,” Elliott said.
Indeed, Florida State had driven all the way down to the Clemson 34 knowing all it needed was a field goal to send the game into overtime. Consecutive false-start penalties moved the Seminoles back, and two incompletions made Venables feel confident in being aggressive and going after quarterback Deondre Francois.
The Clemson defense ended with two sacks to win yet another close game. Since 2011, Clemson is 16-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less -- a stark contrast to the start of Dabo Swinney’s career as Clemson head coach.
Between 2008 and 2010, Clemson was 3-13 in games decided by seven points or less, including 1-5 in 2010, Swinney’s second full season. But starting in 2011, Clemson won close games and started to put together its string of 10-win seasons (five straight and counting).
As Swinney said after the game, “There's got to be something more to it than just: Well, they got lucky.” Clemson has talent, but it also has play callers used to being put in these situations. They, too, have found ways to win.
“There’s a lot to be said for winning,” Venables said. “There are a lot of teams that aren’t doing it. What we are in one-score games -- it’s pretty uncommon. That’s not the norm. Not that we’re beating our chests, but there’s a lot more good in it than the bad.
“It’s revealing. You learn a lot about guys. It builds chemistry. It strengthens your team when you can have a positive as an end result and win. It can really help you and your belief. It’s easier to coach them because they’re a little bit humbled, too. They’re not oblivious to the issues that we may have had.”