CLEMSON — Coming together was a beginning. Keeping together was progress. Working together is success.
Dabo Swinney paraphrased the famous Henry Ford quote Sunday to emphasize the advancements he believes Clemson has made despite one win in his three games as interim coach.
Swinney suggested the Tigers accomplished the first two measures, but the defense’s uncharacteristic rollover in the second half of Saturday’s 41-24 loss at then-No. 24 Florida State provided the latest example of this team’s struggle to put all the pieces together in one game.
“We just have to work together a little bit, and that’s when you have success,” Swinney said.
The anecdote likely applied before this past weekend’s loss, but with each mounting defeat, Swinney’s primary challenge again becomes simply keeping the Tigers (4-5, 2-4 ACC) together.
The FSU loss put the Tigers’ division title hopes to bed and, beginning with Saturday’s noon home game against Duke (4-5, 1-4 ACC), forces Clemson to win its final three games to qualify for a bowl.
Next week’s road game at Virginia and the regular-season finale against USC make that task a tall order — but not an impossible one.
On a wider scale, Swinney’s chances of keeping the job after his audition likely were damaged by another loss in which timeout management and player emotion were issues.
When Clemson’s season took a turn for the worse two seasons ago after the infamous beatdown at Virginia Tech, several players believed some teammates had quit trying or were playing for their own agendas down the stretch.
Swinney said he has “no doubts at all” these Tigers will respond after this latest setback, labeling the senior class that includes running back James Davis, quarterback Cullen Harper and safety Michael Hamlin a “different group of guys.”
“I’ve never been a half-empty kind of guy ever,” Swinney said. “Never will be. My nature is to fight till the very end, and I think we have a lot of players on this team who have the same mind-set.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure the guys we have on the field are going to fight, compete and play the way they are supposed to play. ... If that means changing personnel, whatever, we will.”
Swinney said the coaching staff will determine whether that was part of the defense’s problem after watching the game film.
FSU’s 41 points matched the most Clemson has allowed in four seasons, and a unit that had not allowed more than two touchdowns in its previous 15 ACC games surrendered double that.
In the process, the Tigers yielded a season-high 266 rushing yards, even more than they gave up in the opener against Alabama. Afterward, coordinator Vic Koenning said he had no answers.
“I didn’t have them ready,” Swinney said. “That’s about the only way I can explain it.”
Swinney hopes the offensive line’s protection difficulties will improve based on a better match-up and the return of sophomore left tackle Chris Hairston, who suffered a concussion in the first quarter and did not return.
Hairston will not practice today, but Swinney expects him to be available Saturday.
As of Sunday evening, team doctors were awaiting the results of an MRI to determine the severity of senior defensive tackle Dorell Scott’s knee injury.
“Obviously you have goals you strive for, but our only goal right now has got to be to beat Duke and play with the same energy we’ve played with, especially defensively, the last three games,” Swinney said. “Hopefully we can play our best ball game, which we’ve not played at this point.”