CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney looked out of sorts for the first time as Clemson’s interim coach, bobbing and swaying after being swept onto lineman Thomas Austin’s shoulders.
The bumpiest of regular-season journeys culminated in a memorably bouncy ride.
“I kind of cried when coach (Tommy) Bowden left, but coach Dabo, he picked us up,” senior running back James Davis said. “That’s what you expect from a coach.”
Whether Swinney is named that coach figures to sort out in short order.
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He punctuated his resume with Saturday’s 31-14 hammering of rival USC in Death Valley, a victory that qualified the Tigers (7-5) for a bowl.
They won their third consecutive game in a fashion few imagined, bolting to a 24-0 first-half lead against the Gamecocks (7-5) and cruising to its 10th triumph in the series’ past 12 contests.
Swinney is slated to meet with athletics director Terry Don Phillips this afternoon. Coaches and players have been told they are not to talk with media until at least Tuesday. A team meeting has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday to discuss bowl preparations — and perhaps coaching news.
Phillips declined to discuss whether the victory had any impact on his search, saying: “This was about Dabo and the team. That other stuff can wait.”
Swinney said he expects to coach Clemson in the bowl game, although assistant coaches said they have yet to receive a firm answer.
This much is concrete: Upon inheriting a 3-3 team in the dumps over its vanished ACC title hopes, Swinney guided the Tigers to wins in four of its final six games, including road victories at Boston College and Virginia.
“These kids have bought in and taken the platform they’ve been given, when a lot of people didn’t think they could do it, and they’ve made believers out of people,” Swinney said.
“The real glory is when you get knocked down, you get up and keep fighting.”
With two weeks to recover from a 50-point defeat at Florida, USC offered little fight.
USC redshirt sophomore quarterback Chris Smelley threw four interceptions. Clemson turned three of those into touchdowns.
A defense that led the SEC in most pertinent statistical categories before the Florida debacle yielded six first-half plays of 20-plus yards and surrendered 383 total yards.
A stunning 184 of those were to a Clemson running game that had topped 87 yards once in its previous six games.
Davis tallied 91 yards and three touchdowns on runs of 1, 20 and 2 yards, while junior C.J. Spiller tacked on 88 yards.
“They played like an ACC champion team,” said Spurrier, who fell to 1-3 against the Tigers.
“We just got smashed. ... Sugercoat it all you want, but they’ve got two big-time running backs, they’ve got a big-time quarterback. They got some big-time ballplayers. We’ve got to get us some big-time ballplayers.”
USC pulled within 24-14 early in the third quarter, but Clemson’s lead was not put in peril.
After both teams went three-and-out, the Tigers strung together an 11-play scoring drive that quelled the Gamecocks’ scant momentum.
That allowed Clemson to begin the celebration, as chants of “Dabo Swinney” resonated through Memorial Stadium with just under five minutes remaining.
Swinney got the standard water cooler dousing, and Davis incited the frenzy by pointing to the stands as the Tigers took a knee in the waning minutes.
Clemson had extended its streak of bowl-eligible seasons to 10 while avoiding consecutive home losses to USC for the first time since 1992-96.
The facts and figures were irrelevant, though, to a group that sought to make a statement about its coach and its character.
Senior safety Michael Hamlin said numerous players addressed the team Friday night, sharing stories of what others in the room had meant to them.
“Probably 99 percent of the people in there were crying the whole time,” Hamlin said.
“You couldn’t even imagine this finish. You can talk about it, but to go out there and do it ...”
Might have earned Swinney the job.