Clemson aims for change
CLEMSON, S.C. — Eighth-ranked Clemson is out to change its history, to prove this isn’t one of those Tiger teams that couldn’t stand prosperity — following landmark victories with disappointing losses.
The Tigers (7-0, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) have won blowouts and squeakers. They’ve stunned ranked teams and pounded weaker opponents. They’ve won with explosive offense and dominant defense.
Coach Dabo Swinney thinks it’s a new day in Death Valley.
“If it’s raining, you have to play well. If it’s freezing, you have to play well. If it’s noon, you have to play,” Swinney said. “You step on the field and you have to be ready.”
That’s not always case at Clemson.
Swinney was Tigers receivers coach from 2003 until taking the top job in the middle of 2008 and part of too many squads that followed big wins with even bigger disappointments.
It happened in 2004 when Clemson won at 11th-ranked Miami and fell to 1-8 Duke a week later. Clemson’s 7-1 start to 2006 included wins over ranked teams in Florida State and Georgia Tech. It’s 1-4 finish that season included losses to unranked foes Virginia Tech, Maryland and South Carolina.
The unranked Terps looked poised to do it again this past weekend as they sped out to a 28-10 lead on Clemson. But the Tigers put on an offensive show with 39 second-half points in the 56-45 victory.
“A wins a win, no matter how you get it, you’ve just got to get it,” offensive lineman Phillip Price said. “Whether you get up big and stay up or whether you’ve got to scratch and claw.”
Swinney feels the same way. That’s why he’s reveled after each victory, getting doused by buckets of Gatorade three times already this season. There were questions about his demeanor after Clemson’s 38-24 win over defending national champion Auburn last month, his celebratory shriek to an ESPN camera reminiscent of Howard Dean’s “Scream” speech after the 2004 Iowa presidential primary.
“If you get the Gatorade bath, it usually means you’re winning,” Swinney said. “I’d rather have too many Gatorade baths than not enough.”
Clemson sure didn’t look like winners when the year began.
The Tigers were coming a 6-7 campaign — their first losing season in 12 years — and were without starting quarterback Kyle Parker and Bronko Nagurski Trophy winning-defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. Parker left after his sophomore year to play baseball for the Colorado Rockies while Bowers, who led the nation in 2010 with 151/2 sacks, gave up his final season for the NFL.
First-year coordinator Morris complained about his team’s lack of speed last spring as he put in a faster-paced system the players struggled to pick up.
Things didn’t get much better when the season began.
Fans at Death Valley booed as Clemson left the half of its opener trailing Troy 16-13 (the Tigers eventually won 43-19) and the crowd was just as unsettled a week later as the team struggled to beat Wofford of the Football Championship Subdivision, 35-27.
Swinney didn’t panic and neither did the Tigers, who pulled off their first major surprise the following weekend against Auburn, ending the national champs’ 17-game win streak.
Victories over Florida State and Virginia Tech followed as Clemson became the first ACC team ever to beat three straight Top 25 opponents.
Wins over two teams Tiger fans hold their breaths about, Boston College and Maryland — Clemson was 5-7 against the duo the previous six years — demonstrating, Price said, a vast difference in attitude with other Tiger teams.
“We stay calm. We don’t get worried,” the senior left tackle said. “The thing about emotion is it’s great. But if you rely on it too much, it’ll let you down. We rely on the mentality of staying even, composed and know what we’ve got to do to carry us through the game.”
They’ll likely get another test Saturday when they host North Carolina (5-2, 1-2).
But Swinney saw team chemistry building last season, despite the Tigers losing record. He saw players angry about the losses and determined to change things. Swinney pledged to change, too. He revamped the offensive staff with Morris, new running back coach Tony Elliott and new offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.
The changes have Clemson averaging more than 487 yards (15th nationally) and 38 points a game (21st in the country). Quarterback Tajh Boyd leads the ACC in passing and total offense, while freshman receiver Sammy Watkins is the team’s breakout star.
The defense has shined as well. It held Virginia Tech without a touchdown in a game at home for the first time since 1995.
Tar Heels coach Everett Withers doesn’t want his team too focused on stopping Boyd or Watkins or tailback Andre Ellington, who rushed for 212 yards and a touchdown against Maryland.
“It’s about playing fundamental football, knowing that some of those guys that are like Sammy Watkins are going to make some plays,” Withers said. “You just hope they don’t hurt you with big plays.”
At Clemson, big plays can come from anywhere these days, tight end Dwayne Allen says.
“We’ve been growing game to game,” he said. “We keep adding little things to our arsenal that allow us to pull out games.”
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