2011 loss to NC State sent Clemson down path to humility, maturity

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 17, 2013 

Clemson's Dabo Swinney walks the sidelines during N.C. State’s 37-13 victory over Clemson Saturday, November 19, 2011, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.


— Down this way they call it, “Pulling a Clemson.”

It’s 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 O’Brien with Dave Doeren, who runs a more up-tempo offense similar to Clemson’s 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 weren’t a very mature team then,” said senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “We just didn’t handle success. It’s not just learning to handle adversity. It’s 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 country’s 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 we’re a very different team” than two years ago, Boyd said. “It’s the leadership role we’re in as seniors. That’s our job.”

He said that involves reminding freshmen that 10- or 11-victory seasons aren’t a given.

“This week of practice has been very encouraging,” Boyd said. “We’re dialed in. When we step on the football field, it’s nothing but football.”

Apparently that wasn’t always so. Watkins acknowledged the 2011 group, for all its talent, didn’t understand humility. He said part of the change has been coach-induced, part peer-to-peer.

“The coaches are keeping us humble and we’ve come together as a group,” said Watkins, who sat out that last game in Raleigh with a shoulder injury. “They’re watching everything we do; whether we practice hard or not practice hard.

“And if I or Tajh has a bad practice, we’ll 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 can’t look at a ranking and say, ‘It’s all about a number – we’re ranked and they’re not.’ We need to play like we have something to prove, like we’re 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

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