Clemson returns to the scene of a program-altering loss on Thursday night, hoping to create better memories and put forth a much better showing.
It was four years ago that the Tigers traveled to take on Wake Forest, only to lose 12-7. The loss dropped the preseason ACC favorites to 3-3, increasing the heat under then-coach Tommy Bowden's seat. Four days later, he resigned under pressure and receivers coach Dabo Swinney was appointed interim head coach.
Swinney has remained in charge, and Wake Forest has been unable to beat the Tigers in their three subsequent meetings. The two play Thursday at 7:30 p.m. with plenty at stake. No. 18 Clemson (6-1, 3-1) wants to stay in the Atlantic Division race; Wake Forest (4-3, 2-3) wants to take one more step toward bowl eligibility. But there is no doubt that loss in 2008 has had a huge impact not only on Clemson but on the entire ACC.
“Sometimes I sit and I reflect and I’m blown away by how quickly life can change," Swinney said. "It’s been that way my whole life as far as trying to stay focused on the things I believe in, the things I believe are important, trying to do a good job where you are, and trying to prepare yourself for opportunities. ... I’m thankful to have the opportunity to lead this program.
"I’ve just tried to do the best I can since the day I got this job. I’ve tried to get better each and every day, each and every year. I’m proud of the group for how far we’ve come since that time."
Now Clemson needs to start changing its 1-9 record on Thursday nights, a mark Swinney called "pathetic." Seven of those nine losses have been to top 25 teams and seven of the nine losses have been on the road. This one is on the road again, but Clemson is the favorite to win.
"There's a lot of things we haven't done here in a while that we've been able to accomplish over the last three years, Swinney said. "Hopefully we can start changing that trend."
As for Wake, the Deacs are 4-0 on Thursday night ESPN games. They have gotten a much better performance from their defense in the past few contests, and it is no coincidence that a big reason has been Nikita Whitlock's return to health. He has seemingly stabilized the entire group.
In the first four games of the season, Wake Forest gave up an average of 477.3 yards per game. In the past three, that number is down to 308.7. What has been missing is offensive consistency, but coach Jim Grobe is hoping to get some of that back with the return of leading receiver Michael Campanaro, expected to play with padding on his broken hand Thursday night.
"I thought we played pretty hard defensively against Duke, Maryland and Virginia," Grobe said. "At times didn't get a lot of help from the offensive side of the ball. For us to play really good defensively Thursday night, we have to have some help from the offense. Our offense has to make some first downs. We have to throw and catch better. If we don't, it's going to be tough for our defense to do it by themselves.
"I think our challenge is greater with Clemson Thursday night defensively, and nothing would help our defense more than if our offense could be more productive."