CLEMSON — Two years ago, a seventh-ranked Clemson team tripped on its hubris, turning the ball over four times in a loss at N.C. State.
On reflection, that game was a critical step in the growth of coach Dabo Swinney’s program.
Clemson stepped into something it didn’t anticipate that night. It wasn’t a trap.
“They kicked our butts two years ago,” Swinney said Tuesday. “That was one of the most miserable (games) I’ve been through, didn’t even give ourselves a chance. They played on a 20-yard field. We played on a 100-yard field. Not a good recipe.”
The primary difference between this team playing Thursday night in Raleigh, and that one is the level of experience. Nearly half the Clemson roster in 2011 was comprised of freshmen or redshirt freshmen. “We were a young team,” Swinney reminded. “It’s just that simple.”
Also, they were two weeks removed from a loss at Georgia Tech that clipped a 7-0 start, and a week after a narrow win against Wake Forest. “It was like the world was over. It was like the world had come to an end,” Swinney said mockingly. “Oh my gosh. We’ve blown it.”
Quarterback Tajh Boyd admitted the Tigers were not fully schooled in managing adversity — him, especially, as evidenced by two interceptions and two fumbles.
“I just don’t think we were a very mature team,” he said. “Went out there, turned the ball over, and that was the story of the game.”
Many in the media want to characterize this as a “trap” game for Clemson, either because of its position in the polls or the perception of indifference shown to a 131/2-point underdog.
“It’s hard to win,” Swinney said. “Rankings have nothing to do with it.”
There are potentially influential factors outside their control. First road game of the season, a Thursday kickoff, the season-ending knee injury to receiver Charone Peake, the nuances resulting from a fresh start for N.C. State under coach Dave Doren and the animated Carter-Finley crowd, which stunned many of the younger players the last trip.
“For us, it’s just staying focused on what we’re trying to do,” Swinney said, “not having critical errors, don’t want to give a crowd like that energy.”
Clemson has reinvigorated its fan base, and tickets are at a premium. After last year’s shootout, in which Boyd passed for five touchdowns and ran for three, Clemson has won 52 of the 81 games against the Wolfpack. The elephant in the room during any discussion about this week is Clemson’s 2-9 record in Thursday night ESPN games.
“Just the hand you’re dealt. We don’t really get all caught up in that,” Swinney said. “All that stuff has nothing to do with the game.”
At No. 3 in the AP poll, the Tigers are higher than any Clemson team in 25 years, and probably won’t see a reasonable threat until Florida State, though N.C. State and Wake Forest and Boston College have historically been periodic nemeses. Nine of the past 16 games with N.C. State have been decided by eight or fewer points.
Boyd was asked if the midweek kickoff disrupted their weekly rhythm.
“At this point in the career, it doesn’t really matter,” he said “We practiced on Saturday this week. It felt like we were back out for little league on Saturday mornings.
“We practiced Sunday and it was a very physical practice. Guys were just ready. I think that’s what is different about this team,” he said. “It doesn’t matter."
Boyd seemed confident the Tigers wouldn’t repeat the misadventure of two years ago because of the team’s overall maturity. He said linebacker Quandon Christian mentioned it to him on the drive home from practice the other day, out of the blue from his gut. “This team is different.”