CLEMSON, S.C. — Down this way they call it, Pulling a Clemson.
Its the term for a Tigers football team, highly ranked, playing so perplexingly bad one game that it calls a whole season into question. Third-ranked Clemson drew a lot of inquiries along those lines this week because a classic pulling a Clemson happened last time the Tigers traveled to Raleigh to play N.C. State.
Clemson entered that 2011 game ranked No.7 with a record of 9-1 overall, 6-1 in the ACC. The Wolfpack was 5-5, 2-4.
The result N.C. State 37, Clemson 13 at Carter-Finley Stadium was one of the most miserable games Tigers coach Dabo Swinney can recall.
They kicked our butts two years ago, Swinney said Tuesday. They were playing on a 20-yard field. We were playing on a hundred-yard field.
Much has changed since then for the Wolfpack. N.C. State replaced coach Tom OBrien with Dave Doeren, who runs a more up-tempo offense similar to Clemsons under offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
The Tigers are 2-0 with a victory against top-10 Georgia and aspire to play for a national championship. But the memory of that 2011 game (it broke a seven-game Clemson winning streak against the Wolfpack) is stinging and educational.
We had just clinched the division (the week before) and I just think that we werent a very mature team then, said senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. We just didnt handle success. Its not just learning to handle adversity. Its learning to handle success.
Talented as the Tigers were back then, they had 40-some freshmen or redshirt freshmen. They were a team that ran hot and cold, jumping out to an 9-1 start only to finish 10-4 with a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.
Boyd chose not to turn pro last spring to explore just how good Clemson could be this season. He has one of the countrys best wide receivers in Sammy Watkins. But that loss in Raleigh reminds him how fragile these seasons can be in a sport where a single loss can blow up a year of preparation.
I believe were a very different team than two years ago, Boyd said. Its the leadership role were in as seniors. Thats our job.
He said that involves reminding freshmen that 10- or 11-victory seasons arent a given.
This week of practice has been very encouraging, Boyd said. Were dialed in. When we step on the football field, its nothing but football.
Apparently that wasnt always so. Watkins acknowledged the 2011 group, for all its talent, didnt understand humility. He said part of the change has been coach-induced, part peer-to-peer.
The coaches are keeping us humble and weve come together as a group, said Watkins, who sat out that last game in Raleigh with a shoulder injury. Theyre watching everything we do; whether we practice hard or not practice hard.
And if I or Tajh has a bad practice, well get on each other.
To offensive guard Tyler Shatley, a fifth-year senior, this mature and humble theme comes down to not being deluded by numbers.
We cant look at a ranking and say, Its all about a number were ranked and theyre not. We need to play like we have something to prove, like were the last team in the country, Shatley said.
That game proved to us anybody can be beaten any time.
Bonnell: 704-621-6585. Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell