Sounds of optimism return to locker room

Bowl hopes and Swinney's prospects get a boost as Tigers' revival gains energy

pstrelow@thestate.comNovember 23, 2008 

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —Raucous laughter and voices seeped through the walls of Clemson’s locker room on Saturday — postgame sounds seldom heard from players and coaches in recent months.

When interim coach Dabo Swinney mentioned church in his closing comments, the team’s chaplain howled, prompting a hearty laugh from others.

The aftermath of the Tigers’ 13-3 victory at Virginia had the feel of a revival meeting.

However, the Tigers must overcome one remaining obstacle before they can call their finish a revival: Clemson needs to beat rival USC to become bowl eligible.

“The coaches have talked to us a lot recently about having resiliency, and that’s what this game was about,” senior quarterback Cullen Harper said. “We had to just keep on keeping on.”

The Tigers (6-5, 4-4 ACC) gave themselves reason to keep on going, whether their motivation is a possible bowl bid for the team or the possible permanent hire of coach Dabo Swinney.

“(A bowl) would be a big accomplishment because that’s the last goal out there for them,” Swinney said. “And it’s an opportunity for the seniors to go out with a winning season and be rewarded for how they’ve held this thing together.”

The Tigers held it together on the road against a team that had good reason to play its best. The Cavaliers (5-6, 3-4), losers of three in a row, need one win to become bowl-eligible. They finish the season at Virginia Tech.

Running back C.J. Spiller’s 15-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter staked Clemson to a lead, and the defense took care of the rest in the team’s second consecutive victory.

Despite game-ending injuries to end Ricky Sapp and safety Chris Clemons, the Tigers limited Virginia to a season-low 190 yards on offense and came up with a key fourth-and-1 stop early in the fourth quarter to protect a 10-3 lead.

The Tigers matched a season high with four takeaways, including three interceptions. All 13 of Clemson’s points came off turnovers.

Clemson held Virginia’s running game to 30 yards on 24 carries.

“There’s a reason this team was the preseason pick,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “Those teams usually play pretty good defense. They had some guys we had difficulty moving today.”

The same could have been said for Clemson’s offense, which mustered 196 yards, its worst output in a victory since 1994.

Yet despite sputtering for most of the contest, the Tigers moved the ball when needed.

They protected the fourth-quarter lead by running behind their maligned offensive line. On a late fourth-quarter drive, senior running back James Davis produced runs of 8 and 7 yards to convert third-and-6 and third-and-3, respectively. Those third-down conversions set the stage for Mark Buchholz to kick a 23-yard field goal with 2:37 remaining.

“We didn’t put our defense in a bad position and didn’t turn the ball over,” Davis said. “And that right there will put you in position to win games.”

Minutes after the game, senior defensive lineman Rashaad Jackson led six players into the Clemson fan sections to thank those in attendance for their support.

The Tigers likely will never forget how this once-promising season started. But they are one win away from giving it an unforgettable finish, too.

“We know we don’t want to be home for Christmas,” senior safety Michael Hamlin said. “This is going to determine our season.”

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