Nov. 14 ACC Football Notebook: A Lot On The Line

 

THURSDAY NIGHT GAME A KEY ONE FOR TIGERS, YELLOW JACKETS

Second-ranked Florida State has clinched the Atlantic Division’s spot in Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game. But as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney points out, that doesn’t mean his sixth-ranked team lacks incentive or meaningful goals as the regular season winds down to its final three weekends.

As the Tigers (8-1, 6-1) play host to Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2) in Thursday night’s 7:30 ESPN game, they remain in mathematical contention for a share of the Atlantic Division title. More importantly, Clemson still has a chance to earn a BCS at-large bid if it runs the table in its final three games against Georgia Tech, The Citadel and South Carolina.

“This is when it matters,” Swinney said. “This is November. It matters big time how we play and how we finish. This is when people really separate – in November. People are just jockeying for position in September and October. There are not many teams that started in the top 10 that are still in the top 10 and that have stayed in the top 10. Our team has hung in there and had a really good season to this point. We are going to be judged how we finish.

“That is what November is all about. You to have to finish strong and put your best foot forward.”

YELLOW JACKETS GEAR UP

Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2) can clinch at least a tie for the Coastal Division championship and enhance its hopes of a second straight ACC Championship Game appearance with a win on Thursday night.  But with Clemson as their opponent, the Yellow Jackets would not be lacking for motivation even if that were not the case.

“They’re our cross-rival in the ACC, so we play them every year,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “They’re a couple hours up the road, and they recruit a lot in Georgia.”

Clemson won last year’s meeting by a 47-31 score, avenging a 14-point loss to the Yellow Jackets in 2011. The Tigers won by two touchdowns in 2010. But those recent games have been a definite exception to the rule. In the 15 meetings from 1996 through 2009, the game was decided by five points or less 12 times.

“They’ve just been good games,” Johnson said. “Last year up there, I don’t think the score was indicative of the game. I think it got away from us, but we were up one in the fourth quarter and had the ball on the 12-yard line on fourth-and-one and we fumbled the snap. So they’ve been good games.”

With Clemson having opened the season with a 38-35 win over No. 5 Georgia, Johnson was asked if he had considered calling up the Yellow Jackets’ bitter in-state rival for a few pointers.

“Yeah, I may call them up today and see what they say,” Johnson replied … and no, he wasn’t serious.

“I don’t think we’re going to get any help from Georgia, and I don’t think they’d expect any from us,” he said.

MAINTAIN POSSESSION

In the euphoria surrounding the strong closing finish in their 38-20 win over NC State last Saturday, some members of Duke’s football team might have overlooked the fact the Blue Devils turned the ball over four times on three interceptions and one lost fumble.

Their head coach was not among that group, however, and David Cutcliffe re-emphasized the importance of ball security when he met with his quarterbacks earlier this week. Cutcliffe knows his team can’t afford to make the same mistakes when it faces 23rd-ranked Miami on Saturday, particularly since it needs a win to bolster its ACC Coastal Division championship chances.

“The first thing is that there has to be a premium to take care of the football,” Cutcliffe said. “You take generally young quarterbacks and you teach them, you teach them, you teach them … and then I’ll ask them on a certain play, ‘What’s the most important thing to remember about this play?’ They’ll sit and think, ‘Well, okay, if it’s single safety …’ and I’ll say ‘Wait a minute, let me ask you again, what’s the most important thing?’ and then they start at it again.

“Every play we run at quarterback, the most important thing about the play is that we have possession of the ball when the play ends. Period. You can’t give that lip service.“

Duke countered its ball-possession woes last Saturday by creating four turnovers of its own defensivley, including a pair of interceptions that freshman safety DeVon Edwards returned for touchdowns in the closing minutes.  But that didn’t alter Cutcliffe’s message.

“We can’t turn the ball over,” he repeated. “We’re not going to continue to be successful if we turn the ball over. There are things we’re always coaching and correcting at every position, but certainly that’s the bottom line in that regard.”

EARNING RESPECT

As Miami head coach Al Golden prepares his team for the Blue Devils, he will be facing a coach in which he has much in common.

Like Cutcliffe at Duke six years ago, Golden previously took the coaching reins of a Temple program at which naysayers predicted winning would be close to impossible. The final two years of Golden’s five-year tenure saw the Owls post records of 9-4 and 8-4.

How much can a coach determined to build a winning program be fueled by being told repeatedly that it can’t be done?

“There’s no question it provides motivation,” Golden said. “But after that, you have to block it all out. I’m sure (Cutcliffe) and his team and staff were motivated by that, but they’ve made so much progress over the last two years. He’s been able to stay there long enough to get his system in, to redshirt guys, to get it situated the way he wants it situated.

“I think he’s doing a heck of a job. They have a lot of maturity, they don’t really beat themselves. Clearly that has provided fuel for them, but I don’t think it’s fuel for them anymore. Right now they’re focused on other things, and moving the program forward.”

Golden believes the Blue Devils, who with a 7-2 overall record have already clinched the program’s first winning season since 1994, are where they are now because Cutcliffe mapped out a rebuilding plan and stayed the course.

“He believes in what he believes in, and he doesn’t flinch,” Golden said. “He stays with his plan methodically. I’m sure when they lost to Richmond a few years ago, everybody said, ‘Here we go again.’ He kept pressing forward.

“He has a group of kids that are bought in, and that’s why they’re playing so well. They’re mature on both sides. On defense like I said - that’s a lot of experience and a lot of maturity. They’re executing really well right now, and that’s why they’re winning.”

EVEN KEEL

With a huge lead in last Saturday’s eventual 59-3 win at Wake Forest, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher began benching his starters early in the second half. As a result, starting quarterback Jameis Winston finished a modest 17-of-28 passing for 159 yards and two touchdowns.

With Winston establishing himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in his redshirt freshman year, some Seminole boosters feared such a stat line might slightly downgrade Winston’s resume with potential voters. Fisher, however, begs to differ.

“I don’t think people see that,” Fisher said. “I think they see who’s in control, and it’s how you play when you play – the quality of your play. That’s the thing all those guys have got to remember – if we keep winning that means he is generally playing,  well and he’ll get recognition of those things that he deserves. Just like whoever else is up for (other awards) will get recognized.

‘We found that out last year. The more we won, the more players we had drafted and guys that won awards. And those guys were very unselfish guys.”

And with an unbeaten record and a No. 2 BCS ranking with three regular-season games to play, Fisher said the Heisman race should be secondary to Winston, his teammates and the FSU coaching staff.

“We just have to continue our meetings to remember the focus and the reason why we’re having success and to continue that and not get outside of it,” Fisher said. I’ll tell you what, (Winston) does a tremendous job of that … He’s done a very good job of keeping things in perspective.”

AS GOOD AS ADVERTISED

Syracuse (5-4, 3-2) is the final team standing between the Seminoles (9-0, 7-0) and an unbeaten regular-season slate in ACC play. The Orange need one more win to earn postseason bowl game eligibility, but if it comes on Saturday, it will be against what head coach Scott Shafer called, “One of the best college football teams I’ve seen in a long time.”

“I thought earlier in the year (when we faced) Clemson, that they were really talented, and I thought that group was really special. But this (Florida State) group is unbelievable,” Shafer said. “I started out late last night watching their big plays and it took me about an hour and a half to get through them.”

How does Shafer prepare his team for its toughest test of the season – and on the road, no less?

“It’s no different than any other week as far as preparation and understanding what the winning formula is,” Shafer said. “The kids will be as excited as you can get to go down to Florida State in Tallahassee and play in front of a great football crowd, as well as a great football team.

“That’s why the kids play the game, that’s why the coaches coach it. We’re looking forward to it, and are trying to do a good job focusing in on what we can get better at each day this week.”

HONORING RENNER

With North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury, Marquise Williams stepped in as the full-time starter in last week’s home game against Virginia. Prior to the game, Williams asked that his jersey number be changed to No. 2 – the one worn by Renner throughout his UNC career.

“It was important to him,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “He wanted to honor Bryn. He knew Bryn couldn’t be there, and he wanted to honor him. They’re very close. Those guys have been in that little room for three years together. And Marquise will tell you that he’s learned a lot from Bryn and he appreciates that. It’s kind of like Bryn has passed the team on to Marquise, and Marquise is appreciative and just wanted to honor him with his play on Saturday.”

Williams did his teammate proud by throwing for a touchdown, running for a touchdown and catching a pass for another score in the Tar Heels’ 45-14 win.

“That’s the way you are on a football team,” Fedora said. “You care about your brothers, and a guy goes down and there’s not a whole lot you can do for him. I think last year when (offensive lineman) Brennan Williams went down I think James Hurst wore his number in a game. It’s just a way for those guys to publicly honor them.”

UNC (4-5, 3-3) hopes Williams’ play in the Virginia game is an omen for the remainder of the season as the Tar Heels try to rally and earn bowl eligibility after dropping five of their first six games. UNC will be seeking its fourth straight win this Saturday, but it faces a tough road test at Pitt (5-4, 2-3).

“Everybody on the team cares about Bryn and what happened to Bryn, and they all feel bad about it,” Fedora said “But they also know we’ve got to move on and play the next game, and they have complete comfort in knowing that Marquise is going to come out there and give us a chance as a football team.”

HANDLING A WIN

While North Carolina needs two wins to qualify for bowl-game consideration, Pitt can get there on Saturday with a win over the Tar Heels.

The Panthers are coming off their best effort of the season, a 28-21 upset of 23rd-ranked Notre Dame. A national television audience looked on last Saturday night as Pitt pushed ahead of the Fighting Irish in the fourth quarter and stood firm with the help of several clutch defensive plays, including two interceptions by ACC Defensive Back of the Week Ray Vinopal.

Will such a performance carry over to this weekend and perhaps beyond?

“That’s to be determined,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “It was a good night, and something we can move forward with. The thing that I was most proud of is the way the guys kept playing. You look at that tape and compare it to previous games, and it wasn’t a different team, wasn’t different guys. We just made some plays at the right situations and found a way to win.”

Chryst was especially pleased with his players’ and coaching staff’s attitudes when they reported for meetings last Sunday. The mood was upbeat, but the Panthers were not treating the win over Notre Dame like a national championship.

“Game day is a great day – and it starts when you wake up and finishes when you go to bed,” Chryst said. “You have to be appreciative of all the work that went in and what guys did to achieve that. You wake up and start the next week and think you’re pretty lucky because you have another game to prepare for.

“Absolutely it was good to get a win, but it wasn’t like guys were all of a sudden skipping into the building and whistling.” 

A LIKELY STORY

Maryland freshman cornerback William Likely made his first career interception in last Saturday’s ACC road game at Syracuse. But the Belle Glade, Fla., native has been a defensive force for the Terrapins throughout the season, ranking fourth on the team in tackles (43, including four for lost yardage) and breaking up three passes.

“Will is a guy from the very first day that he came in here, you could see he had something special about him,” said head coach Randy Edsall, whose team travels to Virginia Tech on Saturday. “Just in terms of how he went about his business and how he was doing everything and again the competiveness of Will.”

Likely isn’t the biggest guy on the field. In fact, he’s usually the smallest at 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds. But once a game gets under way, Likely’s physical stature has a way of becoming a non-issue.

“The thing that I like about Will, he understands that he’s not the tallest guy in the world, he plays with a chip on his shoulder and he competes his butt off each and every day,” Edsall said. “He’s a smart football player. He works extremely hard at getting better – a never satisfied, tough guy. I could talk all day about him because he epitomizes everything that you want in a football player.”

STATE OF THE HOKIES

With last week’s road win at Miami, Virginia Tech (7-3, 4-2) remains in the thick of the Coastal Division conversation despite an earlier bump in the road that included back-to-back losses to Duke and Boston College.

Still, head coach Frank Beamer knows there is no margin for error in Saturday’s home game against Maryland or in the season finale Nov. 30 at Virginia.

“I’m proud of our football team; they got us back in good position,” Beamer said. “It was a really good victory (over Miami), but it won’t mean much if we don’t finish this thing off. We know as well as anyone that it’s what happens on Saturday and you have to go play the games.”

The games have not recently been kind to Maryland (5-4, 1-4), which suffered its third straight loss last Saturday against Syracuse and has been hit hard by injuries for the second season in a row.

“You look at the video of Syracuse vs. Maryland, and it doesn’t match up with how the game ended up. Maryland was moving the football and playing good defense,” Beamer said. “But they turned the ball over a few times, and that was kind of the difference, so we have to get ready to play a football game.”

With Maryland’s move to the Big Ten next season, Beamer reminisced about his start in the coaching profession, which took place in College Park.

“I’m really sorry to see them leave,” Beamer said.  “I started out as a G.A. (graduate assistant) there under Coach (Jerry) Claiborne, and it seemed like they had a lot of good rivals in the ACC. It seems like they added a lot of travel going to the Big Ten, but that’s their decision, and I’m sorry to see them go.”

HEAD OF THE CLASS

A head coaching change sometimes sparks dissension among the ranks, but Boston College first-year coach Steve Addazio says team harmony – particularly when it comes to members of his senior class – is a big reason the Eagles stand just one game away from bowl eligibility heading into Saturday’s home finale against NC State.

“I think that the most important thing about this senior class is that they have totally bought into everything that we wanted to do,” Addazio said. “They have embraced it, they have loved it, and even in the last two weeks they have brought their mental part of their game even harder. These guys have gone the extra mile in terms of preparation.

“In week 10 this senior class is still growing, and that is what is amazing to me.”

While leadership and morale are important, Addazio needed his seniors to step up in other, tangible ways this season. Boston College has senior starters at most key positions, including nation-leading rusher Andre Williams at running back, record-setting wider receiver Alex Amidon, quarterback Chase Rettig, and linebackers Kevin Pierre-Louis and Steele Divitto.

“These seniors came in here when the program was still winning, and it is interesting to watch them latch and grab on right now and develop,” Addazio said. “We are obviously going to miss those seniors, and that will be for another conversation at the end of the season. The seniors have been through so much, and now they are swinging away with everything they have.”

NO APOLOGIES

NC State first-year head coach Dave Doeren is the first to admit he doesn’t always go by “the book” when it comes to play-calling. His bold moves don’t always work out as planned, as was the case last Saturday when Duke stopped the Wolfpack when it went for the first down fourth-and-1 from its own 26. But don’t look for Doeren to alter his style.

“At Northern Illinois, I led the conference in fourth down attempts two years in a row,” Doeren noted. “It’s just who I am. I can’t talk and say we are going to win by running the football, we are going to be tough, and (then) it’s fourth and six inches and back down. Those guys want to go for it; they have to get it obviously.

“When it doesn’t work everyone looks at me. You have got to be who you are as a coach. I’m an aggressive coach that stands behind my players and fights for my players and expects them to win the line of scrimmage in those situations.”