The two most popular words coming out of Clemson this week is “Windshield Mentality.”
Those are the two words we heard come out of pretty much every player’s and coach’s mouth we spoke to this week as the No. 5 Tigers get set to host Kent State Saturday in Death Valley. From the head man himself in Dabo Swinney, all the way down to new center Justin Falcinelli.
It’s not the first time we have heard Clemson’s players and coaches utter these words. Swinney has used them as one of his signature phrases since the program began its unprecedented run of six straight 10-win seasons back in 2011.
The “Windshield Mentality” all started after the Tigers were humbled by an unranked NC State team, 37-13, in Raleigh, N.C., in 2011. The week before, Clemson had a dramatic last-second win over Wake Forest which clinched a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
Ranked No. 7 in the country, and with a 9-1 record, the Tigers were feeling good about themselves and not too worried about an unranked NC State club that was struggling at the time, was 5-5 and was trying to position itself for a bowl game. Clemson instead was looking ahead to playing a South Carolina team the following week.
The Gamecocks were having their best year in school history and the talk all year was about how this might be the biggest matchup ever between the two rivals. But Mike Glennon threw three touchdown passes and the defense shut down Tajh Boyd and company as the Wolfpack ambushed the Tigers, 37-13.
“I’m disappointed in how we played,” Swinney said after the game, “embarrassed really.”
Swinney took full blame for what happened on that November afternoon in Raleigh and said that it would never happen again. He said his teams would not disrespect another opponent. And thus the “Windshield Mentality” was born, which means to only look at what is front of you and not about what has happened in the past.
After that embarrassing defeat in Raleigh, Clemson won 45 straight games against unranked opponents, which was the second longest in the country at the time. However, last season the Tigers kind of lost their “Windshield Mentality” on their way to their first national championship in 35 years.
The 2016 season was all about getting back to the title game and winning it all. Rarely did we hear about the “Windshield Mentality,” which might explain why the Tigers struggled to beat unranked teams such as Auburn, Troy and NC State. But superior talent and little bit of luck allowed Clemson to get by those teams and keep their national championship hopes alive.
You knew there was a sense among the team as long as they had guys like Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett on offense, they could overcome a breakdown or a turnover here or there and still find a way to win.
But that logic caught up with the Tigers against an unranked and 5-4 Pittsburgh team, exactly a week short of the five-year anniversary of the NC State debacle. The Panthers had just enough talent and enough will to stun Clemson with a last-second field goal.
All of sudden, Clemson lost a game it had no business losing. The 45-game win streak against unranked teams was over as was a 21-game home winning streak and a 14-game ACC winning streak.
And though it was the worst thing that could have happened at the time, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for the Tigers. From that point on, Clemson had its “Windshield Mentality” back, and thanks to a little bit of luck and winning kick from Iowa on that same day, the loss to Pitt did not hurt their national championship aspirations, as we all know.
Now as a new season begins with a new team that has the same dream, the loss to Pittsburgh is still resonating in the locker room.
As the Tigers break in new players on offense, there will be no looking ahead this year or looking back to last year. They are focused on the biggest game of the year, which this week happens to be Kent State.
This team seems to have that “Windshield Mentality,” and though it is not fun for sportswriters such as myself to cover, because they use the same words each and every week, it’s fun for the fans to watch because they know their beloved Tigers are going to take care of business and beat those teams they are supposed to beat.
Heading into Saturday’s season opener, Clemson has a two-game win streak against unranked teams. But I have a feeling that streak will grow this season and beyond. Of course, that’s just me looking beyond the windshield, and I can do that.