Ray-Ray McCloud was shocked, and his stomach dropped, when he looked at the video board in Death Valley late in the second quarter of Clemson’s eventual 30-24 win against Troy on Saturday.
With Clemson leading by three points with less than two minutes left before halftime, McCloud received a punt from Troy and returned it 74 yards for what initially looked like a touchdown. But just before crossing the plane of the end zone, McCloud let go of the football, and a Troy player pounced on it in the end zone.
McCloud came over to the sideline after the play and was unaware of what happened until a teammate brought it to his attention and he saw the replay.
“When I came to the sideline, (somebody) asked me, ‘Did you score?’” McCloud said after the game. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I looked up, and they were talking about that.”
After the play was reviewed, it was ruled a touchback, and Troy took over at the 20-yard line.
“I was shocked,” McCloud said. “I never did that before. It happened so fast, but it happened for a reason, and I know it won’t happen again.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney didn’t know at first that McCloud let go of the ball too soon, either. He was one of the first to congratulate McCloud when he got to the sideline.
After Swinney realized what transpired, he took a moment to coach McCloud.
“He just told me to grow up,” McCloud said. “There was no yelling or nothing, he was just saying I need to grow up.”
The gaffe put a damper on what was otherwise a career day for McCloud. The sophomore recorded a career-high 86 receiving yards on seven receptions to lead the receiving corps.
McCloud looked fast, shifty and explosive, showing that he is fully past the sprained knee that sidelined him for three games last season and limited him for much of the time upon his return.
The best example of the dynamic ability McCloud displayed was on the punt return itself, when he caused several defenders to miss tackles before flashing his speed in the open field.
“That was a shame, obviously, on the punt return,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jeff Scott said. “He’s very disappointed because it was a great play except for the very end. …
“But other than that, he did some really good things out there. It’s not a surprise because he did well for us in fall camp and made some big strides, so hopefully he’ll learn from that mistake and be better next week.”
In fall camp, Scott praised McCloud for the strides he has made in his maturation as a player, both mentally and physically.
Though he made a freshman mistake in the game, McCloud proved he has matured by not letting the negative play affect his performance the rest of the game.
Instead of allowing things to spiral downhill, McCloud bounced back with three catches for 38 yards in the second half. All three catches occurred on Clemson’s scoring drive that put the Tigers ahead 20-10 early in the fourth quarter.
“Him being a second-year player, he’s seen it,” Scott said. “He’s been through adversity last year, and he knows you’ve got to stay mentally strong.”
It helped McCloud’s mental state, too, that the coaching staff showed confidence in him by keeping him at punt return and in his regular role at receiver.
“I feel like the coaches have confidence in me,” McCloud said. “It was a mistake. It happens to the best players, and I came back out, put it behind me and kept playing football.”
Scott said after the game that he has talked to his receivers before about finishing plays the right way and handing the ball to an official after a play is over.
McCloud simply didn’t do it, but said he won’t make the same mistake again.
“It was a mistake I made, and it for sure won’t happen again,” McCloud said. “It’s on to the next game.”