Clemson seeking strong finish unlike last year

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thinks the 10th-ranked Tigers have

grown since their late-season collapse of last fall and have the

experience to avoid a similar slide this season.

”Consistency is something this program has lacked,” Swinney

said Tuesday. ”That’s the next thing we’ve got to do.”

The quest starts Saturday when the Tigers (7-1, 4-1 Atlantic

Coast Conference) travel to Duke (6-3, 2-2). Clemson appeared ready

to break through a year ago when it stood 8-0 and ranked No. 6 in

the country. The Tigers were in the thick of BCS title talk because

of a record-setting offense that looked unstoppable.

Then things fell apart.

Clemson lost three of its final four games in the regular

season. While the team rebounded to win the ACC crown, Clemson was

demolished in prime time in an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West

Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

Clemson’s already handled several obstacles it hasn’t in the

past since its lone loss, a 49-37 defeat at No. 9 Florida State, to

get itself back in the top 10. Swinney said the players have

learned from last year’s problems and look forward to continuing

their strong play.

”I just think the experience they’ve had is going to pay off

for them,” Swinney said. ”That’s usually the case.”

Tigers center Dalton Freeman said Clemson went nine games

without a break last year and bumps and bruises began to take a

toll. There were also several underclassmen at key positions, he

said, like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins whose

production tailed off and mistakes increased as the season wore

on.

”They hadn’t been through it before and I don’t know if they

were mentally ready” for the stretch run, Freeman said.

Freeman says those players haven’t forgotten what they went

through and are focused on building on their four-game win

streak.

For Boyd, this is a chance to prove he won’t have a drop off in

production the way he did last fall. Boyd had passed for 24

touchdowns and three interceptions in Clemson’s perfect start. He

had four touchdowns and seven interceptions the final four

games.

Boyd said he’s a much more mature player this season and doesn’t

spend much time thinking about what went wrong for him last

fall.

”It’s a growth in the leadership role and having these guys

look up to me in any situation whether we’re down or up,” he said.

”So my job is to stay calm, stay poised and let the game come to

me.”

Boyd’s done that this season. He leads the league with more than

326 yards of total offense per game. He also tops the ACC with 20

TD passes against six interceptions.

Boyd threw for a record 428 yards in Clemson’s 42-13 victory

over Wake Forest on Oct. 25. He tied his own school record with

five touchdown passes to five different receivers – a fact Boyd’s

especially proud of.

”I think that’s when we’re at our best,” he says, ”when

everyone touches the ball.”

Clemson got a major boost against Wake Forest from Watkins, an

All-American who had struggled to match his freshman production as

a sophomore. Watkins had eight catches for a school record 202

yards and his first receiving touchdown of the year.

Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris believes Watkins is

rounding into form at exactly the right time to keep the Tigers

rolling.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils will have their

hands full trying to slow down the Tigers.

”Clemson is an ACC championship team,” he said. ”They’ve got

players that have performed at that level and continue to perform

at that level.”

Duke is Clemson’s last road game and the Tigers finish ACC play

at Death Valley against Maryland and North Carolina, who are

combined 2-3 in conference play so far.

Clemson closes the season at home against rival South Carolina,

which lost star rusher Marcus Lattimore to a season-ending knee

injury last week. The Tigers still need help in another Florida

State loss to win the Atlantic Division and defend their ACC title.

A perfect November might also bring Clemson a second straight BCS

bowl, Swinney said.

”We are pretty high (in the rankings) right now with a loss,”

Swinney said. ”We are about where we should be. If we can finish

strong, we’ll have every opportunity that’s out there.”

AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report from

Durham, N.C.