Swinney, Tigers staying focused despite success
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - This is one football Clemson coach Dabo Swinney won't ever let go.
Tight end Dwayne Allen presented a game ball to Swinney on behalf of the players following No. 8 Clemson's 23-3 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday. It was a very well deserved honor given the Tigers surprise run this season.
Clemson (5-0, 2-0 ACC) became the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to defeat three straight top 25 opponents with wins against Auburn and Florida State the two weeks prior to its win at Lane Stadium. Swinney, his staff and players celebrated on the trip home, then were greeted by about 1,000 or so Tigers fans when they returned to campus early Sunday morning.
Swinney's excited about the accomplishment, but doesn't want the team to forget the hard work that got them there.
"We're 5-0 and that's great. It's a place we hadn't been in a long time,'' Swinney said Sunday. "But our focus is 100 percent on winning our division right now.''
And that remains a difficult and challenging journey, according to Swinney. Then again, it's probably not as hard as they path the Tigers have traveled so far this season.
Swinney's hold on his job was tenuous in some eyes after Clemson finished 6-7, its first losing season in 12 years. He took a gamble on offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was one year removed from his time as a Texas high school coach, had an untested quarterback in Tajh Boyd in his first season as starter.
The defense also had questions with the departure of last year's stars in Nagurski Trophy winner Da'Quan Bowers and safety DeAndre McDaniel.
But Swinney saw something others didn't. He watched the Tigers handle the adversity of last season - Clemson lost three of its last four games - with grit and resolve to get better. That carried into offseason workouts and through summer camp.
"That created a lot of confidence in me,'' Swinney said. "I thought, `If I can fix a few problems, we can be a really good team.'''
Everyone's seeing that now.
Boyd and Morris' offense have been a perfect match so far. The Tigers have averaged better than 466 yards per game this season, second in the ACC and 20th in the country. Boyd leads the ACC in total offense with 308 yards a game. He's got 14 touchdowns passes with just two interceptions.
The Tigers defense has gradually improved and had its best showing of the season at Virginia Tech, holding the Hokies without a touchdown at home for first time since 1995. "Defensively, that's probably as good a performance as I've been around,'' Swinney said.
Defensive end Andre Branch had three sacks and the group held Virginia Tech to 258 yards. Once Clemson took a lead, "we as a defense said, `We are going to win this game.' We decided then that they are not scoring anymore,'' Branch said.
Branch also had 11 tackles and forced a fumble.
Allen, Clemson's tight end, said the team passed its first big road test after playing its first four games at home. "We didn't know how we would play,'' he said. "We did have those four home games. But it was great to get out on the road and experience that road atmosphere.''
The Tigers will have to call on that experience before too long if they hope to continue their success. They return home to play Boston College (1-4), then have road games this month against Maryland (Oct. 15) and, in a likely ACC showdown, against Georgia Tech (Oct. 29).
But those are worries down the road. Right now, Swinney's most concerned about keeping the focus and edge that got them into the top 10 since the Tigers were No. 9 in the 2008 preseason poll. That team was smacked by Alabama 34-10 in the Georgia Dome to open the season and never recovered. Swinney eventually took over when coach Tommy Bowden was let go in midseason.
Swinney said the Tigers listened when they were told the block out the negativity from outsiders about last year. They'll listen this time, too, about blocking out the praise already coming their way.
"All of a sudden, you've got a bandwagon that's full,'' Swinney said. "Hey, none of that stuff matters.''
The victory over Vriginia Tech also adds to another Clemson tradition, erecting a tombstone outside of the team's practice fields reserved for beating ranked opponents on the road. Swinney's happy for his team. But he was a Clemson assistant for five and a half seasons before taking over and has seen countless examples of the Tigers following unbelievable wins with inexplicable defeats.
"You can fall a whole lot quicker than you can climb,'' he said.
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