CLEMSON — As Dabo Swinney entered Clemson’s only open week of the season, the Tigers’ head coach was in a reflective mood.
Clemson had just finished the first half of the 2012 season 5-1, thanks to a tough 47-31 victory over Georgia Tech, one of Swinney’s biggest nemeses; it was only his second victory in six tries against coach Paul Johnson.
This wasn’t a YouTube-worthy moment, but Swinney exuded confidence in his young, improving team.
“A lot of people believe in voodoo – you can’t win here, you can’t beat them. I don’t buy that stuff,” he said. “I hear that all that time. We’ve achieved a lot in three and a half years and we’ve got a lot more to come. These guys don’t buy into that stuff. The credit belongs to the man in the arena – it’s about the guys playing the game.
“They practice hard, they’re about the right things. They have good discipline, they’re coachable, they handle criticism and I’m proud of them. They’re not a great team, not a great defense, or a great offense, but they’ve got a chance to be, they really do, if they do the things they’re asked to and pay the price that greatness requires.”
Halfway through 2012, Clemson is a good, not great team; the Tigers actually slipped a spot in this week’s Associated Press rankings, from No.15 to No.16. Here are five things we learned from Clemson 47, Georgia Tech 31 as Swinney and Co. enter a week of rest and relaxation:
1. The defense still has serious issues: Following an opening-drive three-and-out, Clemson’s tackling got absolutely cringe-worthy, and quick. A sideline pass to Anthony Autry that should’ve been a 15-yard gain, at most, turned into a 53-yard jaunt after safety Jonathan Meeks whiffed on a tackle. Later, Meeks was dragged for at least 20 yards by quarterback Tevin Washington. He wasn’t immune; fellow safeties Travis Blanks and Rashard Hall also had their share of bad angles and poor tackling as Tech rolled up 483 yards.
A solid fourth-quarter performance – Spencer Shuey’s game-changing safety and Josh Watson’s blocked field goal – had a way of softening perceptions; Clemson had no previous record of the two events happening in the same game. The reality is this: the secondary remains a major liability, as evidenced by the Yellow Jackets’ second drive – four plays and 83 yards, with 81 yards coming through the air. That’s out of character for Tech, but right in line for a group which will be targeted in the second half.
2. Sammy Watkins isn’t himself: The ACC’s preseason player of the year returned from a one-game absence due to a frightening abdominal virus which affected his kidneys, catching six passes for 42 yards, returning four kicks for 71 yards and carrying twice for four yards. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Watkins wasn’t yet in perfect game shape, and that the off week would help him get there. Questions of a sophomore slump will likely crop up this week: due to a two-game suspension and last week’s illness, Watkins has played only two and a half games (he didn’t play after halftime in a blowout of Furman). He has plenty of time left, but so far, the All-American’s sophomore season has been a disappointment.
3. DeAndre Hopkins is the Tigers’ best wide receiver: Meanwhile, Hopkins is fitting perfectly into the role Watkins has vacated. He had another standout day Saturday, catching seven passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns (35 and 58 yards). It was the fifth-best single game total in program history; he set the record last week with 197 yards at Boston College. He now has eight touchdowns this season and 17 for his career, tying him with Perry Tuttle for third place on CU’s career list. He has had at least 100 yards receiving in four of six games this season and a touchdown catch in five of six.
Hopkins doesn’t talk to the media often; he declined to speak with reporters Saturday despite repeated efforts from Clemson’s sports information department. That might limit his national exposure, but his statistics and talent speak for themselves. His 777 receiving yards lead the ACC, and his 129.5 yards per game average is fifth-best nationally. He is an elite national receiver, and the way he’s playing, you might want to savor his highlights; he’ll be eligible to declare for the NFL draft in January.
4. Rod McDowell is a solid No.2 back: Entering Saturday, Tajh Boyd was the No.2 rusher behind Andre Ellington; no other Clemson player had 100 yards rushing. With D.J. Howard sidelined by a shoulder injury, McDowell – known as “Hot Rod” – delivered a souped-up performance, carrying nine times for 56 yards and two touchdowns while adding a 23-yard reception. Ellington has been impressive, but he needs to be spelled every so often, and McDowell could be just the guy to do it. He has been much-improved this season, running with quickness and toughness.
5. The road to the ACC title game is open again: Hours after the last fan had left Memorial Stadium, Clemson’s quest for another ACC title got a huge assist when N.C. State upset No.4 Florida State, 17-16. Following a 49-37 loss to FSU in Tallahassee, the Tigers needed to win out and hope the Seminoles lost twice. They’re now halfway there, and Florida State still has trips to Miami, Virginia Tech and Maryland left on its docket. Clemson gets Virginia Tech at home, Wake Forest and Duke on the road, and Maryland and N.C. State at home. They’re all winnable games, and the road to Charlotte looks far more navigable than it did at 7 p.m. Saturday night.