Commentary: Tigers win big, but can they avoid pitfalls of the past

October 19, 2009 

— ON SATURDAY MORNING, Dabo Swinney told at least one person close to him that he would not be surprised if Clemson, to paraphrase, put a hurting on its opponent.

The sentiment had little to do with Wake Forest.

Two weeks of emotional buildup were about to crescendo, and Swinney sensed the Tigers were bent on cleansing themselves after their Maryland mishap.

That story was relayed to me moments before kickoff. When its source surfaced at halftime - with Clemson steamrolling the Demon Deacons 31-3 - he said, "I'm not going to say I told you so."

The Tigers' 38-3 evisceration of Wake Forest was a told-you-so moment across the board.

Players said the outcome confirmed that the offense's shortcomings were about lack of execution, and the win reaffirmed their belief that this team possesses a stronger will than its predecessors.

To Swinney, it proved that the problems were not indicative of a bigger-picture flaw. And that his motivational means - such as the much-discussed flareup between Swinney and offensive coordinator Billy Napier during an Oct. 7 bye-week practice - were getting through.

Of course, the flip side of such an overwhelming win was that it supported the argument that the bumbling 24-21 loss at Maryland was inexcusable.

It also strengthened the perception these might well be the same ol' Tigers (3-3, 2-2 ACC), who have a track record of flashing their muscle once they've been relieved of their lofty expectations.

My best guess: The truth lies somewhere in between.

And Saturday's game at No. 8 Miami (5-1, 2-1) should set the truth free.

It is probably true that Clemson's offensive players trimmed their mistakes and executed better on Saturday.

But it also appeared that some wrinkles Napier has advocated for - using the quarterback as running threat, veering away from spread formations in favor of more I-formation, increasing the tight ends' and running backs' role in the passing game - were weaved into the game plan in a different and more cohesive form.

And some combination of the two led to improved production on first downs and in the red zone - the thorns in the offense's side this season.

But beyond that, what did we learn about the Tigers that we didn't think we already knew? Was that victory any more telling than Clemson's 44-10 pummeling of Wake Forest in Death Valley two years earlier?

Yes, it was a step in the right direction and certainly beat the alternative.

The Tigers remained in the retreat from ... er, the race for the Atlantic Division title as one of four teams with two ACC losses.

Yet the constant with this program has been its failure to win when the stakes were highest, and that is best illustrated by Clemson's stretch of fourth-quarter ineptitude in close games.

Sure, if the Tigers keep routing everyone by 35 points, its late-game deficiencies would be moot.

But we've obviously seen nothing to suggest Clemson has transformed from tease to powerhouse overnight.

That said, the odds favor the Tigers encountering another fourth-quarter battle or two if they stay in the chase for a berth in the ACC title game.

The proof will ultimately come if the Tigers put an end to this trend - eight losses in their past nine games decided by a touchdown or less.

Or if they can come up with their first win against a top-15 opponent this season after losing their first their first two tries by a combined seven points.

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