By William Qualkinbush.
No person associated with Clemson football will soon forget the 2013 meeting between the Tigers and Florida State.
The Seminoles arrived in Tigertown on a mission and left with a season’s worth of expectations in hand after a 51-14 victory. Players, coaches, fans—no one can forget the negativity and despair of that day, though they may try.
Remembrance is a slippery slope for this Clemson football team, as those who remain will get a chance for revenge in Tallahassee on Saturday night. The images of that night have haunted the Tigers for 11 months, but the players—particularly on defense—understand the differences between reliving last year’s debacle and preparing for a new set of challenges.
“That’s a good team,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “They’re not as good as they were last year, but they’re still a championship-contending team.”
Kearse barely played in last year’s game, but he remembers how it felt to see the Seminoles run roughshod over his team. Williams’ memory goes a little bit deeper, back to the last time he went down to Tallahassee to face Saturday’s opposition.
Back in 2012, the Tigers lost a two-score lead after E.J. Manuel carved up the Clemson defense in the second half, eventually falling by a score of 49-37. It was a frustrating loss for Williams that he says turned when Lamarcus Joyner returned a kickoff 90 yards to set up a touchdown right after the Tigers went ahead by ten points in the third quarter.
“It brought life back to the stadium,” he said. “It’s a different type of environment when you’re on the road. Like with Georgia, when you’re on the road and that crowd gets into it, that’s like the 12th man.”
The story has been the same in each of the past two seasons. Clemson plays a competitive first part of the game, only to see mistakes compound into a nightmarish scenario.
The defense has taken the brunt of the blow. Over those two contests, Clemson has allowed an average of 50 points and 611 yards per game to the Seminoles. Neither Kearse nor Williams has any intention of allowing such an outburst again this year.
“We know what they did to us last year,” Williams said. “We want to go down there and match it, play better than we did last year.
“They straight up dominated us on our home field. You can’t sugar coat it any way other than that.”
Kearse grew up a Miami fan with an uncle who played for Florida, so he learned how to dislike Florida State from an early age. But he also respects the Seminoles for the talent and tradition they have flaunted during his lifetime.
He knows the Tigers will have their hands full with quarterback Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who turned last year’s game into a three-hour self-advertisement. With more games to watch on film this time around, Kearse feels Clemson’s defense should be able to get a better read on Winston’s tendencies.
However, he also sees an improved version of Winston playing this season every time he turns on the film.
“To me, he’s becoming a better runner,” Kearse said. “He can get outside the pocket and make a few guys miss. I think he does that better than he did last year.”
The backs-against-the-wall mentality that Dabo Swinney’s program has thrived upon is present in the Clemson locker room once again. Kearse spoke on Monday of the opportunity that awaits his team. In spite of the challenges inherent in a game like this one, the narrative is hopeful as Clemson hopes to reassert itself on the national stage.
“You don’t have too many opportunities where you’re going to play against the number one team in the nation,” Kearse said. “Right now, we have the opportunity to go out there and get a win and make history.”