'Playing our best football' has Clemson streaking into bowl season with another goal in sight

'Playing our best football' has Clemson streaking into bowl season with another goal in sight

Football

'Playing our best football' has Clemson streaking into bowl season with another goal in sight

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The good news for Clemson is the Tigers don’t play for roughly another month. The bad news for Clemson is the Tigers don’t play for roughly another month.

Clemson put a bow on the regular season by pitching a shutout against its in-state rival Saturday. Not only was it the Tigers’ seventh straight win over South Carolina, but it was Clemson’s fifth straight win this season, continuing its late-season surge.

The Tigers (9-3, 6-2 ACC) polished off a perfect November with its two best performances of the season. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called the Tigers’ 21-point victory over a Wake Forest team then ranked in the top 10 — one in which they set season-highs in rushing yards (333) and total offense (543) while holding the Demon Deacons to a little more than half of their season scoring average — their most complete effort of the season at the time. The Tigers followed that up by scoring at least 30 points for the fifth straight game against a Carolina defense that hadn’t allowed more than 17 points at its home stadium all season.

Clemson also held the Gamecocks to 3.3 yards per play in its first shutout in the series since 1989.

“That was Clemson football (Saturday),” Swinney added. “We’re playing our best football.”

The Tigers have come a long way since that rough 2-2 start in September, one in which Clemson failed to reach the end zone against Georgia in the opener and mustered just 14 points in regulation against Georgia Tech (win) and North Carolina State (loss in double overtime). With an offense that continued to struggle finding rhythm or explosive plays in its first season without Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, things looked bleak.

Significant attrition, particularly along the offensive line and at receiver, didn’t help. Slowly but surely, though, with the help of a much-improved running game, the Tigers’ offense began to score some points.

Clemson cracked the 20-point mark in regulation against an FBS opponent for the first time in a win over Florida State on Oct. 30. The next week, the Tigers put up 30 in a six-point win at Louisville. Since scoring just 17 in its most recent loss at Pittsburgh on Oct. 23, Clemson has averaged 36.4 points, a significant jump from the 20 it averaged through the first seven games.

With the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense on the other side of the ball, it’s all helped the Tigers win seven of their last eight games, which has kept another goal within reach. Clemson’s streak of consecutive ACC championships will end at seven this season, but the Tigers still have a shot at a 10-win season. The last time Clemson didn’t finish a season with double-digit wins? 2010.

Swinney recently made the argument that, should his team pull it off, this one would be as good as any of the others considering the circumstances.

“It just shows the heart of this team,” quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “That we have this no-quit attitude and we just come out each and every week, prepare and come out and fight.”

The question now is where will the Tigers go bowling? The Gator Bowl is their most likely landing spot, but the postseason destination — and exactly how long Clemson will have to wait before taking the field again — won’t be official until it’s announced Sunday. 

Just as much of an unknown for Clemson is who all will be available to play? Because if there’s a benefit to the extended time off for the Tigers, it’s more time to try to nurse some of their ailing players back to health before the final game of the season.

“I think the biggest thing is probably getting healthier,” Uiagalelei said.

Uiagalelei has played through a sprained knee and a banged-up index finger on his throwing hand the last two games, but it’s the group of receivers at his disposal that could use the recovery time the most. Clemson has played some if not all of the second half of the season without its top four receivers because of various injuries.

Frank Ladson Jr. (groin) won’t play again this season. As for Justyn Ross, Joseph Ngata and E.J. Williams, that remains to be seen. Ngata (foot) has missed the last three games, but Swinney said last week the Tigers’ second-leading receiver is “definitely better” and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Ngata playing in the bowl game. Williams recently sustained a leg injury unrelated to the knee injury he dealt with earlier in the season and has missed the last two games as a result.

Meanwhile, Ross, who aggravated the stress fracture in his foot against Connecticut on Nov. 13, had surgery last week. Swinney said it was a “clean” operation for the Tigers’ star wideout, who still leads Clemson in receptions (46) and receiving yards (514) despite not playing the better part of the last three games.

Ross, a fourth-year junior, has already decided to declare for the NFL Draft once the season is over. It’s hard to envision a player with those aspirations that will be roughly a month removed from surgery risking further injury in a non-College Football Playoff bowl, though Swinney didn’t completely rule it out.

On the other side of the ball, starting defensive end Xavier Thomas (hamstring) and one of Clemson’s top backups at the position, Justin Mascoll (undisclosed), have missed the last couple of games. Following Saturday’s game, Thomas indicated on social media that he intends to play in the bowl game.

The Tigers will take all the help they can get as they try to keep their momentum going into the offseason by accomplishing one last goal — one that seemed far-fetched just a couple of months ago.

“First and foremost, I think it speaks to the foundational principles that Coach Swinney has laid with this program about effort, toughness, never quit, belief in self, playing 60 minutes and believing in your teammates even when the outside says not to,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “And then the young men believing in those foundational principles, going to work, being able to block out the noise and focus on what was most important, and that’s playing for the love of their brothers, the love of their university and the love of their team.”

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