Bill Hass on the ACC: Tigers Seek to 'Pull the Rope in the Same Direction' Saturday

Dec. 2, 2011

CHARLOTTE – For Clemson, it’s all about pulling the rope.

After rising high in the polls with an 8-0 start, the Tigers have lost three of their last four games. It’s not the kind of momentum they wanted for the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game, to be played against Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. Saturday at Bank of America Stadium.

“It’s a game of execution and performance,” coach Dabo Swinney said Friday, “and we’ve had a hard time getting 11 guys to pull the rope in the same direction every play.”

Swinney said the common thread in those games was turnovers – a dozen of them in the final four contests. And in the last three, the Tigers created no turnovers.

“I think we’re minus-10 in turnover margin,” he said of that stretch, “and before that kind of slide came I think we were plus-9. So you’re talking about a drastic, drastic change in that category.”

Still, Clemson was good enough to get this far and play for a spot in the Discover Orange Bowl. And Swinney said his players seem to have put the regular season behind them.

“You play all year to earn a right to get to postseason,” he said, “and we’re one of two teams still standing in our conference. I wish we were 12-0 coming into this (but) we’re not. Can’t do anything about that. All we can do anything about is how we play tomorrow night.”

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said that with the talent Clemson has, the Hokies can take nothing for granted.

“There’s such a thin line between momentum and getting over a hump and not,” he said. “I think they just got on the other side of that thin line, and sometimes once you get rolling the other way, it’s hard to get it back.

“I think when you’ve got talent on your football team like they do, offensively and defensively and punter-wise and kicking-wise, you get into a game and all of a sudden things get rolling.”

Beamer cited the 2005 championship game as an example. Florida State struggled down the stretch of the regular season but regrouped and beat the Hokies 27-22.

Virginia Tech is 11-1 and has rather quietly risen to the No. 5 ranking in the polls. The Hokies certainly are a different team than when they were thrashed by Clemson 23-3 in Blacksburg on Oct. 11.

“Well, I hope we’ll perform better offensively,” Beamer said. “I think we’re a better offensive team, and then you can’t turn the ball over, which we did a couple times in that first Clemson game. I think our quarterback (Logan Thomas) has more experience and kept getting better with experience. I think that's big.”

Kicking is another area Beamer where wants to see better results. He felt his team gave up too much in field position with bad punting the first time around.

Thomas and running back Davis Wilson are two obvious players that have Swinney concerned. The first time the teams played, he said, he was concerned about Thomas as a runner. Now he’s a threat as a passer.

“They’ve done a few things different in the passing game but he has really become an accurate thrower,” Swinney said, “and he’s gotten just a lot more confident.”

As for Wilson, the ACC’s Player of the Year, Swinney said “he’s as good a player as there is in the country,” a hard-nosed runner with speed.

One of Beamer’s biggest worries is how to contain Clemson freshman Sammy Watkins, the ACC Rookie of the Year, who’s a threat receiving, running and returning kicks. One of the problems in stopping him is that the Tigers have numerous other threats at the skill positions, such as running back Andre Ellington and tight end Dwayne Allen.

“But he’s an explosive guy,” Beamer said of Watkins. “Every time he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s a threat to go and go the distance.”

TWO MORE YEARS: ACC Commissioner John Swofford announced Friday that the league has awarded the championship game to Charlotte for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Among the reasons for the decision he cited were back-to-back sellouts of public tickets, the central location (eight schools are within 300 miles), convenience of area hotels and the facility at Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

Swofford said the league was so pleased with the way things went last year, the first time the game was played outside of Florida, that the league did not take bids on the game. The reason it was awarded for two years, he said, was to coincide with the league’s bowl contracts, which run through 2013.

The ACC also did not consider letting the team with the best record host the game, which the PAC-12 is doing this year.

“We prefer a quality neutral site,” Swofford said, “where the game can be consistently successful year in and year out, and hopefully we have found that here in Charlotte.”

USED TO IT: It’s not quite true that the ACC can’t hold a championship game without Virginia Tech, but it’s close. The Hokies are making their fifth appearance in the seven years of the title game. They lost 27-22 to Florida State in 2005; beat Boston College in consecutive years (30-16 in 2007 and 30-12 in 2008) and beat Florida State 44-33 in 2010. Clemson’s lone appearance came in 2009, when the Tigers lost to Georgia Tech 39-34 (the Yellow Jackets later had to vacate the title because of NCAA infractions).

RIGHT AT HOME: Two of Virginia Tech’s starters hail from Charlotte – wide receiver Jarrett Boykin and free safety Eddie Whitley, both seniors. Clemson has two backup players from here – senior defensive end Kourtnei Brown and sophomore linebacker Spencer Shuey.