Clemson University

Gillespie: Tigers resolve to stay focused

C.J. SPILLER SAID HE wanted to throw up. And that was BEFORE Saturday's game against archrival South Carolina.

Imagine how he felt afterward.

On second thought, you probably can't.

Clemson's one-time (if likely no longer) Heisman Trophy-seeking tailback stood in a dark tunnel beneath Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon, his mood not much sunnier than his surroundings, and assessed the damage to his Heisman candidacy, Clemson's national stature and the Tigers' psyche, all inflicted by a stunningly one-sided, 34-17 loss to the Gamecocks.

The first, he claimed not to be concerned about. The second, well, not much he could do about that. The third? No problem, he said.

If you expected the senior and his teammates to be crushed by this loss, you were wrong, even though Spiller's day was about as depressing as one that begins with a record-setting, 88-yard kickoff return can be.

That's because, once he reached the end zone with 19 seconds gone, Spiller's production - if not his nausea, which he said was there when he awoke and lingered through the game - was pretty much done. He was held to 18 yards rushing (at a 2-yard-per-carry clip) and 14 receiving - not his worst day of 2009, but close.

"You can't turn the ball over, (and) I put the ball on the ground," Spiller said of his third-quarter fumble, one of three Clemson turnovers, though the only one that didn't lead to a USC touchdown. "You have to be able to take care of the ball."

Then, in a way he never managed to do effectively on the field, Spiller changed direction, voicing a mantra you suspected had been preached by coach Dabo Swinney before the game.

"We've got to get things corrected by Monday and get ready to go play for a championship," Spiller said. "We can't dwell on this. We've got to get ready for something way bigger."

Indeed, this Saturday, Clemson, now 8-4, faces Georgia Tech in a rematch with the ACC title - potentially the Tigers' first since 1991 - at stake. Win that, and it's off to the Orange Bowl and a BCS mega-payday.

That sort of put Saturday in perspective, Spiller implied. "Monday I'm going to get my finger sized for a big ring," he said.

Spiller wasn't the only Clemson player who seemed more bemused than destroyed by his team's showing. Quarterback Kyle Parker passed for 212 yards and a touchdown, but most of that came in the fourth quarter after USC had all but put the game away.

"It always bothers you to lose," he said. "I could've played better; I wasn't terrible, but I should've stepped up and driven us to a win."

But he didn't, and so, Parker said, it was time to "forget and move on, and not let it happen again; time to turn the page."

The Tigers were doing a lot of "page turning" - and ignoring the nasty paper cut that came with it - on Saturday. They took their lead from Swinney, whose "take lemons and make lemonade" approach is positively Dale Carnegie-ish. Saturday was no different.

"It's still all about us," the second-year coach said. "It's been a long time (six games) since we lost. It's a sick feeling; we had an opportunity to achieve one of our goals, and we failed to do it."

But - and you knew there was a "but" - Swinney emphasized this loss was not about to ruin his week, let alone Clemson's season.

"In August, we started out with the objective to be champions," he said. "We have an opportunity to win our conference; that's our next goal.

"There's no time to wallow in this (loss). We lost in a (30-27) shootout with Georgia Tech before, so we've got a lot of work to do."

For starters, Clemson's defense needs to discover how a USC rushing attack ranked among the nation's worst hung 223 yards on the Tigers - the most they had allowed since, you guessed it, Georgia Tech put up 301.

See, this loss might serve a purpose, after all.

"When you ... turn the ball over and then you can't stop the run, it's hard to win," Swinney said. "The bottom line is we couldn't stop the run."

Swinney and his players gave the Gamecocks credit for that - "they deserved to win; they outplayed us," the coach said - but they didn't give USC what its fans really wanted: a sense of loss to equal the home team's elation at winning.

Was this a huge blow to Clemson's confidence? Why, Swinney asked, should he think that?

"We played pretty good for six-seven weeks," he said. "Why would I not have confidence? Why would I not be confident that we can do it again when we've done it?"

Answer: no reason - unless he wants to let this loss beat him twice. Now THAT would make anyone, including Spiller, want to throw up.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC