CLEMSON, SC – Dabo Swinney believes consistency is something the Clemson football program has lacked in recent years.
Checking in at No. 10 in this week’s AP poll, the Tigers have now been ranked for 23 straight weeks, the third-longest streak in program history and making them one of only seven schools in the nation that can boast that.
Suffice it to say, Swinney has Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) well on its way to building that consistency.
“That’s what great programs do,” he said Tuesday at his news conference to preview the Tigers’ upcoming game at Duke. “I think we’re heading in that direction. And the only way to do that is to go have a great finish and hopefully finish with another BCS bowl bid. All those things are out there for this team, but we’ve got to take care of the business at hand.”
And that business starts Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN2) at Wallace Wade Stadium, where Clemson holds a 14-12 lead in its series with the Blue Devils. This game, however, holds the distinction of being the first time the two schools have ever played each other at night.
Also different from many of the Tigers’ previous visits to Durham, N.C., Duke (6-3, 3-2) comes into the contest having already clinched bowl eligibility and in a three-way tie atop the Coastal Division standings.
One of the keys to the Blue Devils’ success has been a high-pressure style of defense, and the Tigers are expecting plenty of “house” blitzes and Cover 0 from coach David Cutcliffe’s defense, which has forced 19 turnovers, the second most in the ACC.
“That’s what they do,” junior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “They bring pressure, they man up, and we’ve got to win those situations, plain and simple. If teams are going to do that, you can’t really protect it because they’re going to bring one more guy than we can block, and we’ve got to take advantage of those situations.”
Bringing more than the Tigers could block and taking their chances on the back end was a plan that backfired on Wake Forest last Thursday. Boyd set a school single-game record with 428 passing yards and threw five touchdowns to five different receivers – Brandon Ford, Sammy Watkins, Sam Cooper, DeAndre Hopkins and Charone Peake – in a 42-13 win.
“That’s when we’re at our best is when we’re spreading the ball around to all those guys and not trying to force things,” Swinney said. “Just take what’s there and play within the flow of the game. … That’s one of the things that I like about what we do is we have the ability to involve a lot of people.
“It all starts with Tajh. He got a little sloppy in the third quarter, but really played as well as he’s played in awhile.”
As good a job as Duke has done of turning over opposing offenses, Clemson has done equally well at protecting the ball – something it struggled to do down the stretch a year ago. Coming into Saturday, the Tigers lead the ACC in turnover margin at plus-eight and have given the ball away a league-low eight times all season.
Saturday’s contest is also the Tigers’ final road game of the season, and a win would allow them to finish 4-1 away from Death Valley and mark just the second time in the last 15 years they have won four times away from home in a season.
“You’ve kind of got to get to the point where you bring your own energy,” Boyd said. “I feel like we’ve been doing a great job this season – whether it’s away games or home games – of not getting too high, not getting too low based off of (external) factors. That’s a sign of what type of team that I think we’re becoming and the future of this program.”
But while Wallace Wade Stadium isn’t known as one of the most hostile environments in the country, it hasn’t been the easiest place for the Tigers to play. Seven of the last nine games played between Clemson and Duke in Durham have been decided by seven points or fewer, and the Blue Devils have a 4-3 advantage in those games.
If the Tigers hope to hold onto their stated hopes of repeating as Atlantic Division champs, defending their ACC title and returning to the BCS, then Saturday is the epitome of a must-win game.
“We don’t really focus much on polls and any of that stuff in the preseason,” Swinney said. “We just try to focus on winning today. And at the end of November, hopefully we’ll be a relevant football team from a national standpoint. The only way to do that is to take care of the task at hand.”
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