When Maryland (5-2, 1-2 ACC) started the season 4-0 and Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) struggled with teams like NC State, some pointed to Clemson’s game at Maryland as a potential letdown opportunity.
Of course, that was before anyone knew what kind of a juggernaut Florida State appears to be. The conventional wisdom was that Clemson would either beat Florida State or lose a close one.
Obviously, that’s not what happened.
And now, the Tigers head to College Park to face a Maryland team that’s been decimated by injuries over the last few weeks and has its season slipping away before its eyes. Clemson, though, desperately needs a shot of confidence after it didn’t stack up with Florida State the way it — and many outsiders, frankly — thought it might.
“You just refocus them on, okay, here’s what happened and here’s why it happened; here’s the things that we control. … Going into that (Florida State) ballgame we had outscored our opponents 56-0 off of turnovers. So that’s why we’re 6-0. And then we go into this game and we get outscored 24-0 off of turnovers,” Swinney said. “You can’t beat bad football teams that way, much less a great team like Florida State. So it’s disappointing because we just really didn’t feel like we even gave ourselves a chance to compete like we wanted to and we know we can.”
Clemson is 12-8 coming off a loss under Swinney, and went 2-0 last year, responding well to the Florida State loss (a 14-point win over BC) and to the South Carolina loss (a win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl).
And in fact, three of those eight losses have come in postseason play, either in a bowl game or in the ACC title game. In the regular season, Clemson is 9-5 after a loss under Swinney and have won five of its last six in the regular season after a loss.
But Clemson also hasn’t been beaten like this under Swinney very often. The 37-point margin last week matched the biggest loss of the Swinney era, a 70-33 beating in the Orange Bowl at the hands of West Virginia. Clemson responded to that by having a great season in 2012, but the Tigers had the whole offseason to stew.
Swinney, though, is nothing if not confident. He said this week that if Clemson and Florida State played ten times, he felt the two teams would split the series.
That’s not what the game itself appeared to show, but Swinney — understandably — believes in his team. And Clemson is still a good team. So they’ve spent this week getting back to basics, correcting bigger mistakes like turnovers and even smaller ones like missed assignments.
“We are not playing intelligent right now on offense. That is the frustrating thing to me. Being intelligent should be our competitive advantage,” Swinney said. “We have a lot of experience from our group. That’s why I think we need to refocus and retool the guys on the basics. We have been doing a lot of calculus, so let’s go back and do something arithmetic. We’ll dive back in to the fundamentals on some things.
“The guys will respond. This is a hurt football team. We are going to be okay because they care. Nobody cares more than these football players do.”
Maryland head coach Randy Edsall, though, has bigger problems.
Edsall has to rally his team somehow as player after player has suffered a season-ending injury week after week after week. The last two years, Edsall has faced injury problems that are simply mind-boggling.
He’s not one to make excuses. It’s not his style. But at Wake Forest last week, the Terps were already dealing with injuries to a lot of important defensive players, and then they lost their starting running back and two starting wide receivers (the latter two for the season). And their starting quarterback suffered an undisclosed injury.
So he at least admitted this week, finally, that he hasn’t seen anything quite like this.
“No, I haven’t. I’m experienced in a lot of things in the last couple of years that I haven’t experienced when it comes to injuries. It’s unfortunate because (wide receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs) are good guys and good players. To see that happen, one almost right after the other in that game in very similar situations, it’s tough,” Edsall said.
“But like I said, we’re disappointed that it happened to them, but we have to move forward, and now Levern (Jacobs) and Amba (Etta) have to step up and play as good or better than they were. That’s the motto that we have. That’s the mindset we have. Hopefully they’ll do that for us.”
That’s the mantra from football coaches at every level — let’s control what we can control. They can’t control injuries. Swinney can’t control the margin of defeat last week or what pundits say about his team this week.
But Swinney does think both he and his team can control how they respond.
“It’s the biggest game of the season is this week. This is what we control, and at the end of the day there’s still a lot out there for this football team. So you point those things out. You really come together from a leadership standpoint. Everybody take accountability, and then you go back to practice,” Swinney said.
“That’s what we’ve done, and that’s what this team has done really for the last couple of years. That’s why we’ve had the success that we’ve had and the consistency that we’ve had, because they’ve responded, whether we’ve had a big win or we’ve had a really, really tough loss.”