CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants his team focused on Furman – and not peeking ahead to its Atlantic Coast Conference showdown with No. 5 Florida State in two weeks.
The 11th-ranked Tigers (2-0) are not expected to have much trouble with the Paladins (0-2), a Football Championship Subdivision opponent that has lost 29 straight in the series. It won’t hurt Clemson’s chances getting star receiver Sammy Watkins back after his two-game suspension for an offseason drug arrest.
Swinney cautioned things might not be as easy as some expect this week.
Last year the Tigers were tied at the half against FCS opponent Wofford and rallied late for a 35-27 victory. Wofford plays in the Southern Conference like Furman.
“We thought we were going to rest some players against Wofford,” Swinney said Tuesday. “We all remember that. It was all we wanted and then some.”
Tigers center Dalton Freeman won’t forget last year’s near defeat against Wofford, a run-based team that led the FCS in rushing with nearly 365 yards a game. It was only the second game for Clemson running coordinator Chad Morris’ fast-paced system and execution was a problem.
Wofford led 24-21 early in the third quarter before the Tigers moved in front for good on Tajh Boyd’s touchdown run and hung on for victory.
“They probably should’ve beat us,” Freeman said.
Clemson’s had no such offensive issues this season, starting a season with consecutive games of at least 500 yards for the first time since 1980. The Tigers put up 45 points in the first half of last week’s victory over Ball State, their best showing since scoring 49 in half against Wake Forest during their 1981 national championship season.
Freeman, a senior, said the team’s upperclassmen won’t allow a drop off at practice this week or a letdown in the game. “For us it doesn’t matter who we’re playing if it’s Furman or Florida State, we should go out there and play Clemson football,” he said.
The Tigers should get an immediate boost of energy from Watkins. The All-American receiver and kick returner sat out wins over Auburn and Ball State because of his arrest. He’s been itching to get back on the field and is ready to go, Swinney said.
Not that Clemson’s needed him. DeAndre Hopkins has led receivers with 19 catches, including a school-record 13 in the win over Auburn, and four TDs through two games. In all, 12 players caught passes in the victory over Ball State a week ago.
Swinney shut things down for most offensive starters near the end of the opening half. He’s not worried the players will take a cue they can ease into this one, despite the fact Clemson is 25-0 since 1982 against FCS teams.
Swinney said he and his coaches have spent plenty of time since last year ended about looking too far down the schedule to the bigger games ahead. What’s most important, he said, is Clemson players identifying their mistakes and working to fix them. “I’m really anxious to see them maturing as a program,” he said.
There’s no looking anywhere but the next game for Clemson’s defense, which is dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference at stopping the run. The Tigers gave up an awful 180 yards rushing against Auburn and were even worse in surrendering 252 yards to Ball State, including TD runs of 54 and 21 yards by Horactio Banks.
It was not the showing first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables was looking for. Venables said if his players struggle to hold down Furman, it might be difficult when the ACC season cranks up against the Seminoles in two weeks.
“I think it’s important that you continue to improve,” Venables said, “because the competition is only going to get better.”
Defensive lineman Josh Watson felt a bit empty after last week’s 52-27 win because of Ball State’s strong rushing game. The defense wouldn’t take any opponent lightly this week. “It’s a test of your manhood when somebody’s running right up the middle on you,” Watson said. “That’s unacceptable.”