Beating LSU next step in being among best
CLEMSON — Over the last 10 days or so, Clemson’s program has suffered through several major disappointments.
First came the 27-17 home loss to South Carolina, the Tigers’ fourth consecutive loss to their archrival.
The loss to USC all but dashed hopes of a second consecutive BCS berth, and last weekend’s events – most notably Northern Illinois crashing the BCS party by making the top 16 of the final BCS poll – ended them completely.
So despite an attractive Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup with No.9 LSU (10-2), there was reason for concern about No.14 Clemson’s overall focus entering the New Year’s Eve showdown in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
The Tigers’ seniors and team leaders say there’s no reason for worry. They see their final collegiate game as a springboard for the program moving forward.
“I think that we are becoming a more consistent program, that’s obvious when you look back on the past two years. That’s obvious,” said senior center Dalton Freeman. “But to get where we want to be, a national contender like LSU and Alabama, teams that are in the mix each and every year, we need to win games like this to get on that level.”
Freeman said last week that Clemson lacked focus following last season’s ACC title win, which contributed to a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss at West Virginia’s hands.
Following a week off, however, he saw “great energy” as his teammates returned to running and weightlifting this week. He expects no letdown, a change he attributes to Dabo Swinney’s improved program culture.
“I’ve seen that in years past. This is a different team,” he said. “I’m so proud of the way our guys come to work every day. It’s a totally different mindset. We don’t have any whiners or complainers that we used to have. That was contagious. Once we got those guys out of the program, we’ve started to filter in the guys coach Swinney is recruiting, and it’s a big addition to our staff.”
Senior tight end Brandon Ford will draw on his experiences as a freshman in 2009. That year, the Tigers lost a wild, 39-34 ACC title game to Georgia Tech, but rallied and beat Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.
He said seniors like current NFL players Michael Palmer, Thomas Austin, Ricky Sapp and Kavell Conner rallied the roster following the disappointing defeat.
“They were all hungry,” he said. “We’d just lost the ACC Championship, and it was a bad feeling. Those guys got the team focused. They were ready to go. Everyone rallied behind them. It was a great win for us that year. I feel we’ve got to do the same thing or better for finish the season out strong.”
Ford admits he’s still “50-50” about the South Carolina loss, but says he and his teammates must put it behind them.
“It’s still an emotional feeling,” he said. “That’s the rivalry game. You go home, you heard about it all the time. But from a veteran standpoint, guys in the NFL and other sports, they lose games like that and put it behind them as just another game. We’re fortunate enough to have another game. We’ve got to get prepared for LSU. We can’t dwell on it the next 20 days. I think this team has forgotten about that game. We’ll be ready.”
Following the Tigers’ only other loss of the season – at Florida State in late September – junior quarterback Tajh Boyd called a players-only meeting to refocus his teammates. Clemson responded by winning seven consecutive games.
“I feel (teammates) admired the way we took the team under our wings that Monday,” said senior cornerback Xavier Brewer. “We had to get everything straight and get focused; we had a lot of season ahead of us. Now we have a month to prepare for a great LSU team. They’re trying to come out and play the best against us and we’re going to do the same. We’re excited for great competition. You come to Clemson to play against the best and prove you’re one of the best.”
Focusing on the past isn’t an option.
“If you’re thinking about South Carolina and going to play LSU,” Brewer said, “you’re going to get smacked in the mouth.”