ACC Football Notebook: Week 8

Clemson, Swinney excited to make road trip to Miami

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Few opposing football coaches claim to enjoy playing a road game at Miami, but count Clemson’s Dabo Swinney among the exceptions.

When Swinney takes his team to Sun Life Stadium for this Saturday’s noon kickoff, he will have at least a passing flashback to the Tigers’ most recent visit. That came in 2009 and resulted in a 40-37 Clemson win in overtime.

Swinney can still recite some of the biggest plays of of that upset win over the eighth-ranked Hurricanes and the players who made them – C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford and Kyle Parker immediately spring to his mind, but there were many others.

“That’s one of the best I have been a part of,” Swinney said. “It was an awesome night. There were a lot of playmakers on that field. I think that was our first top-10 win. If you go back and look at that game, there were a lot of NFL players on both sides. It was an electric day.”

At that time, an overtime thriller between the teams was almost expected. The two previous meetings had resulted in a 24-17 overtime win by Clemson at Miami in 2004, followed by a 36-30 victory by the Hurricanes in triple-overtime at Death Valley the following year.

“We got off to a slow start (2-3) and we went on to win six in a row and beat Florida State,” Swinney remembered. “It was a fun year, and we were just getting started.”

Swinney said he always looks forward taking his team on any road trip, and he wants his players to embrace the experience.

“I like going on the road,” said Swinney, whose 6-0 team just finished a three-game homestand but now travels to Miami and NC State the next two weekends. “I think our guys are excited about getting back out on the road. That’s part of the process every year. I wish they would let us play all of our games at home, but it doesn’t work that way. You look forward to every game and the challenge each game brings.

“We’re playing a great team at their place. How awesome is it to load up and go to South Beach and play at a place that the College Football Playoff is going to be held and a place where we won the Orange Bowl (in 2014)? We have a bunch of guys from Florida (11 active players) being able to go home to their home state and play. It’s exciting.”


IT’S BEEN A WHILE
Saturday will mark the first time that Clemson and Miami have met since the Hurricanes’ 30-21 win at Death Valley in 2010. Even without the benefit of having seen the Tigers head-to-head since taking over at Miami in 2011, head coach Al Golden knows what to expect when he faces the nation’s sixth-ranked team.

“We’re going to have to adjust quickly,” Golden said. “I think they’re ultra-talented. I think they’re deep, as evidenced by their defense. They lost a whole bunch of guys on defense a year ago, a ton of them to the NFL Draft, and yet they’re being replaced by a lot of juniors and sophomores. They don’t play a lot of freshmen, so they’re deep. They’re athletic on that side of the ball, they have a good kicking game, and an offense with an explosive quarterback (Deshaun Watson) that can make the big plays – both with his feet and his arm.

“Excellent offensive line, they use their tight ends well, get the ball to the perimeter, good speed – it’s a complete team. Worthy of where they are, certainly, from a ranking standpoint.”

The Hurricanes have shown an uncanny ability for coming up with turnovers this season, and they hope that can be an equalizer come Saturday. Miami leads the nation in turnover margin, averaging 2.17 more takeaways per game than its opponents.

“There are the two areas that we set out to fix – our turnover ratio and our penalties,” Golden said. “We’re making progress with our turnover ratio, and obviously we have to continue to make progress with our penalties. We’re going to get challenged. The ball is going to get challenged this weekend, both up front and down the field. They have an excellent defense. We’re going to have to protect the ball on offense and try to take it away on defense.”


WELL-TIMED

Duke went into last weekend’s open date riding a three-game winning streak that included victories in its first two ACC games and earned the Blue Devils a spot among the nation’s Top 25. Head coach David Cutcliffe felt the break – coming at exactly the halfway point of the regular season – came at a good time for his team.

“I think the open date was good for not just the physical body, but for the emotions,” said Cutcliffe, whose team returns to action this Saturday afternoon at Virginia Tech. “We gave the players Thursday, Friday and Saturday off and went back to work Sunday evening. So they came back with a good bit of energy. Now we’ve got to maintain quality of preparation in all three phases.”

Many of Duke’s players returned home during the break.

“I wanted them to have time off,” Cutcliffe said. “They didn’t have class on Friday. They were able to go because they didn’t have to be back until Sunday afternoon. I think that break is great for them. Coaches probably wish they had the same, but there was recruiting to be done, so a lot of travel was involved for the coaches. But certainly players that live close enough, that nice little break to get home cooking and just to see family is good for them.”

Duke (5-1 overall, 2-0 ACC) completed the non-conference portion of its regular-season schedule with a 44-3 win at Army in its most recent outing October 10.

“It’s exciting to be now in ACC football,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re thinking about nothing else but playing teams that you’re familiar with, and you understand the challenge. I think that’s good for our team.”


THE PARTS ARE STILL THERE

Virginia Tech’s season to date hasn’t gone the way Frank Beamer envisioned. But despite injuries and other setbacks through the first seven games, the veteran coach believes enough pieces remain in place to salvage a successful season.

“We’re not happy where we are right now,” Beamer said. “I’m happy with the potential that we have right now. I’ve said all along, we just have to play better. When you look at our wide receivers, we have fantastic potential. When you look at our tight ends, we have fantastic potential. When you look at our running backs, we have fantastic potential. Our defense is going to continue to get better. We run exceptionally well.”

Beamer acknowledged that injuries – particularly to defensive backs Kendall Fuller and C.J. Reavis, plus quarterback Michael Brewer – have taken their toll. But he refused to blame them for all of the Hokies’ struggles.

“We weren’t counting on two guys who were going to be in the NFL not being a part of that secondary,” Beamer said. “That’s a setback. Any time you lose your quarterback, it’s a setback ... (but) it is what it is. We weren’t counting on Brewer going down. We weren’t counting on Kendall Fuller going down. Other defensive backs not being here.

“Everyone has injuries, some are more critical than others. Our kids are playing hard. We haven’t always played well. If you’re out there and your kids aren’t playing hard and wanting to win, then I’d be disappointed. We’ve played hard, just not well enough at times. Certain things have happened that set us back. I’m excited to get back to practice tomorrow and see that we can get better. With young kids with talent, we have a chance to get better.”

Even with a 1-2 record in ACC play, the Hokies can’t be counted out in the competitive Coastal Division. But the margin for error stands next to nil, and Beamer acknowledges that his team faces a tough task this weekend versus Duke.

“They’re a different Duke than when I first came here and when (Virginia Tech) got in the ACC,” Beamer said. “It’s very much a different Duke. I have great respect for what they’ve done down there. They’re good. Defensively, they play a bunch of stuff in a lot of coverages. Offensively, they take care of the ball, very efficient, great effort. They do a good job … Really a good football team, a solid football team. I used well-coached a lot. It really, really does apply in this case. We have to have great preparation and play great to have a chance to win this one.”


SECRET WEAPON?
Were T.J. Thorpe’s story a made-for-TV film, it would almost defy belief.

Almost one year after catching the game-winning touchdown pass in North Carolina’s 28-27 win at Virginia, he will be back on the field for Saturday’s rematch when the Cavaliers seek to turn the tables in Chapel Hill.

The irony of course – as fans of both teams know – is that Thorpe is now enrolled in grad school at Virginia and will suit up for the Cavaliers this Saturday. Not only will Thorpe be returning to the school and stadium he once called home, he will be playing just minutes away from the city he still calls home – Durham, North Carolina.

After breaking his right clavicle during preseason practice a little over two months ago, Thorpe missed Virginia’s first two games and most of the third. But he has now worked his way into the wide receiver rotation with eight catches for 176 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown on his first reception of the season against Boise State on Sept. 25.

Thorpe says he feels no ill will or animosity toward his former squad, and the feeling is apparently mutual. Minutes after his TD catch against Boise State, several of his UNC teammates responded with congratulatory tweets.

But might Thorpe be privy to any “secrets” that he tossed the Virginia coaching staff’s way during this week’s preparation? Nothing of significance, claims Cavaliers head coach Mike London.

“I’m quite sure that whatever plays, snap counts and all those things like that, that it may change from the standpoint of what Carolina is going to do,” London said. “He can offer insight into some things, obviously. He knows the players. You can only ask him about players and maybe some concepts, but again, I know they're cognizant of a guy that he was in their offense last year.

“Defensively, he wouldn't know anything. Coach (Gene) Chizik is a new coordinator. He may be able to speak to players' athleticism on the defensive side, what kind of guys they are. But I'm quite sure they'll do their due diligence in making sure there are no issues about worrying about what T.J. knows.”


GOING WAY BACK

Pitt and Syracuse own an intense football rivalry that began nearly 100 years ago. The schools have met every year since 1955. But current Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer and Panthers counterpart Pat Narduzzi share a longstanding friendship that dates back to the 1993-95 season, when they worked together as defensive assistant coaches at Rhode Island.

“We are very good friends,” said Shafer, whose Orange welcome Pitt to the Carrier Dome this Saturday. “We were very young when we started coaching at the University of Rhode Island. There were three of us on defense. Mike Mallory was our coordinator; he’s with the Jaguars now. Mike coached the linebackers. Pat coached the d-line and I had the secondary. We were learning on the run and it was great. We started to put together some defensive thoughts and put together some really good ideas.”

Shafer found neither Narduzzi’s successful stint as defensive coordinator at Michigan State nor the Panthers’ fast start this fall to be surprising.

“Pat has done an unbelievable job with Michigan State’s defense and now at Pitt,” Shafer said. “Not only (are we) good friends, but I have a lot of respect for him as a professional coach in college football and his defensive mind.”

Narduzzi was asked if going up against Shafer’s team made Saturday’s game “special.”

“I don’t know if you can call it special,” Narduzzi said. “It’ll be special before the game starts, and after that it’s war. We haven’t talked all season, so as good of friends as we are, we’re both busy. We probably saw each other or maybe texted each other during doubles (training camp) or somewhere around that time, but we talk in the offseason.

“This is business for him and it is business for us, and both of us want to come out of there Saturday victorious. It’s just another game. Just like the Youngstown game, just like the Georgia Tech game. It’s a one-game season and that’s how we’ll play it.”


WHAT’S IN A NUMBER?

With five wins in their first six games and a 3-0 start in ACC play, Pitt finds itself ranked among the nation’s Top 25 for the first time since 2010.

“I came in here (Sunday) night and congratulated them but really, what does it mean?” Narduzzi said. “It doesn’t mean a thing until the end of the season … The thing is, they were nowhere on the radar a week ago. We earned our respect throughout the week and our kids earned it. There was no preseason guarantee. So it was something they did on the field, and that accomplishment is huge for them ... (But) it didn’t matter last week or the week before or in preseason. We’ll take it one week at a time. It’s just a number. We’re more than a number. We have a bunch of individuals in here that play as a team, and that’s what it’s all about.”

At the same time, Narduzzi would rather remain a ranked team than revert back to flying under the “radar.”

“I’d rather be who we are,” he said. “What does number 25 mean? It means you might be a target now. (Opposing teams) are going, ‘Hey, we have a Top 25 team coming into our house.’ Every week games get bigger. Now the target is on your back and they know who you are. You’re not going to jump up and surprise anybody.

“Now we have to prepare better on the field, better in the classroom, and those are the things that are important. It’s not where you are now, it’s what you’re going to do in the future.”


HISTORY LESSON

Wake Forest’s home game against NC State on Saturday will mark the 109th meeting between the schools.The teams are meeting for the 106th consecutive year, the fourth-longest active uninterrupted series in the NCAA today.  

“I like talking about the history of who you’re playing with the guys,” NC State head coach Dave Doeren said. “I think the pageantry of the game tends to get lost a lot. The Wake Forest meeting is over 100 years old and I think that’s important for a kid to understand. It’s pretty cool to be a part of something that has been around for so long.”

Doeren and the Wolfpack will seek to buck recent history. Though NC State owns a 64-38-6 lead in the all-time series, the Demon Deacons’ 25-23 win in 2006 marks the last time either side won a road game.

Three of Wake Forest’s final six regular-season games will be against in-state rivals. After facing North Carolina last weekend and NC State this Saturday, the Demon Deacons still have a home game against Duke remaining on November 28.

“We’re very fortunate here that we have three in-state rivals,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “The NC State game is a very big game for our program. I think it’s really neat for our players that they get to experience these rivalry games. That rivalry means a lot to our players, and it’s a very big football game.”