By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
When looking back at Clemson’s 37-13 loss at NC State in 2011, wide receiver Sammy Watkins was not surprised by what had happened. He said the Tigers, which return to the scene of that crime tonight at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., simply played the way they practiced leading up to that contest.
“That whole week we had bad practices,” Clemson’s star receiver said. “Everything that happened that day happened in practice all week. The interceptions, the fumbles and the missed assignments, that was happening all week. It played out just the way we played in practice.”
The way Watkins described the week leading up to the game and what actually happened were prime examples of team that was playing 42 freshmen and sophomores, including 22 freshmen. It appeared they were playing through the motions of a long season.
It probably did not help matters that the Tigers, who were ranked No. 7 in the polls at the time, wrapped up the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division title the week before. In their minds, especially after being knocked out of the national championship race with a loss to Georgia Tech a few weeks before, there was really nothing to play for when they went up to Raleigh.
“That comes from inexperience,” Watkins said. “A lot of the young guys, myself included, were burned out. We had so many freshmen playing. Knowing we were going to be playing for an ACC Championship in a few weeks, it can get in your head.
“You don’t want to get injured before that game. Look at me I would have rather played in the ACC Championship game then against NC State. There were a lot of guys, I think, that were looking forward to the ACC Championship game. That’s why we got beat pretty bad.”
Watkins did not play in that game. Instead he sat on the sideline nursing a shoulder injury he suffered in the win over Wake Forest the week before. So when third-ranked Clemson kicks off the game tonight at 7:30 against NC State, a couple of things will be different on this trip.
First of all, the Tigers (2-0) will have something to play for as they kick off the ACC season. Secondly, they are a more experienced team and understand they have to come prepared to play each and every week no matter what the stakes are. And finally, Watkins will be playing.
“I think we have a great team that listens and understands the game of football,” he said. “We know we can overcome adversity now, where that was not the case a couple of years ago. When Georgia got up on us we still kept playing.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with our ability to play, but our experience. It’s about going out there and having fun and doing what our coaches are asking us to do.”
What the coaches want Clemson to do tonight is execute. That’s something that did not happen in the 2011 game. The Tigers turned the football over on consecutive possessions in the second quarter and then had a long punt return set up another score on the next possession.
NC State (2-0) started three straight possessions inside the Tigers’ 20-yard line as it rolled off 27 unanswered points in the second quarter.
“We didn’t play well and that is nobody’s fault but mine,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s my job to have the team ready. If they are not ready, that’s on me. That’s the bottom line. When we went up there, we had what we like to call a ‘Plan to Win.’ Well, we executed a ‘Plan to Lose.’ Four turnovers, three of them inside our own 20 against a good football team at their place?
“You can’t win. You can’t win that way. It does not matter who you play. Hopefully, the guys we have on this team have grown through their whole career experiences and they will put their best foot forward and not lose the game. If you get beat, you get beat. But let’s not lose the ballgame.”
Since that long afternoon in Raleigh, the Tigers have done exactly what their head coach has asked. They have not lost any game they were favored to win. The defeats that have come since that time, they were beat by better teams.
In the last 10 games against un-ranked opponents, Clemson is 10-0 and the games have not even been close. The Tigers have outscored those opponents by an average score of 48-21 in the process.
“This week of practice was very encouraging,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “Everyone was very dialed in. When we step on the field, there is nothing else that matters, but football. That was something that was kind of preached to us and coached up to us, but I think the guys really understand that, truly.”