NCF Nation: 2013-FSU-Clemson

FSU, Clemson both revert to old ways

October, 20, 2013

CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the third quarter of Saturday’s dismantling of No. 3-ranked Clemson, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith approached wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey on the sideline and asked him a question about his playing days with the Noles, an era in which the program experienced its first four 10-win, top-five poll finishes.

“I said, ‘This is how it felt when y’all were doin’ it?’” Smith said. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely how it was.’”

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin, Darius Robinson
AP Photo/Richard ShiroKelvin Benjamin and FSU looked like the Seminoles of old and there was little Clemson could do about it.
They’re back -- Florida State AND Clemson.

On Saturday night in Death Valley, on the biggest stage college football had to offer in the first half of the season, both No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State reverted back to their signature ways. For the Seminoles, that meant playing with a confidence and swagger not seen since the ’90s. It meant an elite group of athletes who simply looked superior against what was expected to be their toughest opponent of the season. For Clemson, it meant imploding like it was 2008. It meant another monumental collapse when it mattered most -- an embarrassing 51-14 loss on home turf with national title implications at stake.

Florida State didn’t just look like the best team on the field on Saturday. The Seminoles looked like one of the best teams in the country. Period.

“We’ve got that swag,” quarterback Jameis Winston said with a smile.

This would have been a different story had Clemson lost a close, exciting, hard-fought game, but the Tigers were flat-out dismissed at home by a better team. From the opening play of the game, a Clemson turnover that led to an FSU touchdown, the Tigers looked rattled and out of sorts -- exactly how many expected FSU to look on the road. FSU proved that the gap between the two programs was far wider than their top-five rankings have indicated. The Noles proved that they are good enough to be great again.

“Since my four years here, I think this is the first brotherhood I’ve been a part of to embrace that challenge, because of the tradition and the history we have here,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “There’s so much pressure to pick that back up, and this has been the first team to embrace that. And we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”

For all of the hype surrounding this game, all of the build-up and questions swirling around Winston, whether or not the 19-year-old would be able to handle the unforgiving environment of Death Valley -- the rookie redshirt literally smiled in the face of it before taking his first snap. Winston practically scoffed at the notion crowd noise might fluster them.

"I said, 'Guys, we don’t play against noise,'" Winston said. "'We’re playing against the Clemson Tigers.'"

This team is not cocky, but it’s good and it knows it. So does anyone who watched the game. Florida State’s receivers seemingly can’t miss. As good as the offense was, the defense was the story of the game. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was sacked four times. He threw two picks and one touchdown and completed just 17-of-37 attempts for 156 yards. It was arguably the worst game of his career, considering he was the veteran at home, and he was outplayed by Winston.

“I just didn’t perform the way I was capable,” Boyd said. “As a leader, it’s my job to go out and lead and perform, and I just didn’t do that tonight. There were a couple moments that I would like to have back, but you just have to keep on working.”

Florida State had the edge in just about every matchup. Offensive lineman Cameron Erving kept Vic Beasley at bay, and while Winston was sacked three times, none came from Beasley. The Noles had two 100-yard pass catchers as tight end Nick O'Leary had 161 yards on five catches and Rashad Greene had 146 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches.

Sammy Watkins was limited to eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

“I feel like I have the best receiving corps in the whole land,” Winston said. “It tells. Stats tell. Sammy had a great game, he’s a great person. Our defense had an even better game. Tajh had a good game, but my guys -- I feel like our team is legit, too legit to quit. They are playing amazing.”

No team left on the Noles’ schedule -- including Miami or Florida -- has looked comparable to Florida State so far, and FSU further distanced itself from the rest of the ACC on Saturday night with the country watching.

Nobody got a closer look, though, than the Tigers.

“Florida State might be the best team in the nation,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “... They might be the best team in the country.”

Clemson certainly did its part in helping them look like it.

Seminoles D grabs the spotlight

October, 20, 2013
CLEMSON, S.C. -- As it turned out, the weeks-long debate over whether No. 3 Clemson fifth-year quarterback Tajh Boyd is better than No. 5 Florida State first-year quarterback Jameis Winston, proved irrelevant Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

(Pregame hype irrelevant? Say it ain't so!)

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins, Ronald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroRonald Darby and the Seminoles defense harassed, hounded and, well, made life miserable for Sammy Watkins and the Clemson offense.
What we learned, courtesy of the Seminoles' 51-14 beatdown of the Tigers, is that Clemson fifth-year quarterback Tajh Boyd is not better than Florida State first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

With all due respect to Winston, the wonder who threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns, Florida State won this game on the other side of the ball, which Pruitt has revamped and revived in 10 short months. The Seminoles limited Boyd to 156 yards passing and forced four turnovers from a team that had only six in the first six games.

"I'm gonna tell you, the key tonight was defense," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "... Creating the turnovers, creating the opportunities. And just making those guys [Clemson] work for everything they got. [Our defense is] really grasping the whole system, and I'm extremely proud for those guys."

Pruitt is the 38-year-old, first-year defensive coordinator at Florida State, and a graduate of SDU -- Saban Defense University. Fisher, another former assistant to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, spirited Pruitt out of Tuscaloosa, where he spent three seasons and won two rings coaching the defensive backfield.

Fisher, like his former boss, doesn't allow his assistants to speak to the media. But here's what you need to know.

To read the complete story, please click here.

CLEMSON, S.C. -- The game was over, but for the final seconds still waiting to tick off the clock. A horde of Florida State fans were all that remained of a sell-out crowd in Death Valley. They cheered their quarterback's name from the edge of the stands, while a few overwhelmed security personnel held signs asking them not to climb the wall.

It didn't matter.

The game ended, the crowd poured onto the field and surrounded Jameis Winston, their conquering hero.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Bryan Stork
AP Photo/Mike StewartFlorida State and quarterback Jameis Winston throttled Clemson on Saturday night, at one point scoring 34 unanswered points en route to a 51-14 victory.
Winston talked to television reporters, then escaped to the locker room to change into a perfectly tailored gray suit with a purple tie. He emerged like a politician at a rally, eyes bulging and arms waving as he regaled the assembled media with the rhetoric of practice and preparation and the will to be great.

This is what has galvanized Florida State's fans, Florida State's players and Florida State's coaches.

Jameis Winston, the quarterback, was exceptional in dismantling No. 3 Clemson 51-14 on Saturday. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns, adding a fourth on the ground. His lone interception was the fault of a broken headset that resulted in a bad play call, coach Jimbo Fisher said. In four ACC games, Winston has topped 300 yards and three touchdowns every time. He helped FSU score the most points a visiting team has ever tallied in Death Valley.

But it was Jameis Winston, the leader, who was front and center Saturday.

"You see what he does every week," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "It's to the point where we come into an environment like this and we say, OK, we know what Jameis and the offense is going to do. Everyone looks up to that guy."

For two weeks, Florida State heard about the noise in Death Valley. The Seminoles were asked to relive five straight losses here. They were told, again and again, that this game would define their season.

Winston slept on the bus ride to the stadium.

"One in a million quarterbacks act like that," receiver Kelvin Benjamin said.

When he arrived, Winston was all energy, of course, but he was hardly bothered by the 83,428 fans berating the Seminoles from the opening snap. Winston stepped into the huddle for FSU's first drive, and he grinned a familiar smile.

"I said, 'Guys, we don't play against noise,'" Winston said. "'We're playing the Clemson Tigers.' And we played our hearts out."

Florida State scored on that drive, and then eight of the next 11. Winston was electric on every one.

Asked after it was over for the difference between last year's Seminoles -- a team that lost two games and often played down to its competition -- and this year's group, Winston offered a simplistic, yet utterly reasonable answer.

"We've got that swag," he grinned.

That swag comes directly from the freshman quarterback with a fiery competitiveness and overwhelming confidence few players his age share. But what sets Winston apart from even the best of his competition is that through it all, playing football remains immensely fun.

"He throws jokes," Benjamin said. "If you look at us a lot of times in the huddle, we're laughing. It's like pee-wee football all over again."

Winston laughed in the locker room with teammates. He danced on the field during warm-ups. He soaked in the rabid Clemson fan base, and he relished the moment.

It's simply who he is, but his teammates took notice.

"He's not coached up to be a leader that way. He's being himself," Joyner said. "When someone is genuine like that -- it's very rare in this culture to have someone that's genuine at heart like that, so we respect it and we go off that. Guys walk around all serious, and you see Jameis all goofy before a big-time game like this, it's like, 'OK, let's do this, man.'"

It's all fun for the Seminoles at this point. With Saturday's win, they boast a resume worthy of consideration as the nation's top team. Several players suggested they were, in fact, No. 1, but Winston stopped just short.

There's more work to do, Winston assured, but if his team prepares the way it has, the Seminoles can play with anyone.

"Our team is legit," he said. "Too legit to quit."

He's serious, and he's not. He means every word he says, but he's also enjoying every moment he gets to address a crowd and embrace the spotlight. The stage on Saturday was immense, and Winston couldn't wait for his chance to embrace it.

"I've got so much confidence in that kid, just him being himself," receiver Rashad Greene said. "I knew he wasn't going to let his teammates down."

The performance figures to vault Winston to the forefront of the Heisman discussion. Greene said that's exactly where he belongs. But Florida State likely has seven more games to play before then, which means the award isn't likely to be much of a consideration.

"I know he's not worried about a Heisman," Greene said.

Instead, Winston said he was just looking forward to food and sleep when it was over.

"One game at a time," Winston said. "We're not doing the partying or the rah-rah stuff."

Video: Fisher, Winston talk about big win

October, 20, 2013

Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston talk to Heather Cox after leading No. 5 Florida State past No. 3 Clemson.

Instant analysis: FSU 51, Clemson 14

October, 19, 2013

CLEMSON, S.C. -- It had been 12 years since Florida State won in Death Valley, but Jameis Winston insisted that didn't matter. This was a new Seminoles team, and they weren't interested in the past.

After No. 5 Florida State's 51-14 dismantling of No. 3 Clemson, however, comparisons to the past seem entirely appropriate. The Seminoles look to be every bit as good as they did in their 1990s heyday, and Winston is on a Heisman pace that mirrors the campaigns of Charlie Ward or Chris Weinke.

It was a dominant performance all around, and Florida State now appears firmly in the BCS championship mix.

It was over when: Winston drove Florida State 42 yards for a touchdown to open the third quarter. The Seminoles had all the momentum to end the first half, but just hadn't driven the final dagger through Clemson's comeback hopes, but a long kick return by Levonte Whitfield and a personal foul flag gave Winston a short field, and he delivered quickly. The touchdown put FSU up 34-7, and Clemson showed little life afterward.

Game ball goes to: Winston is the easy choice, but it's impossible to ignore the impact cornerback Lamarcus Joyner had on this game. He forced three turnovers, including a fumble on Clemson's first offensive play. FSU turned that into a touchdown to set the tone for how the rest of the game would unfold. Another forced fumble on a sack of Tajh Boyd led to a field goal, and Joyner added a pick at the end of the first half to complete the hat trick. For good measure, he shadowed Sammy Watkins for much of the game, and Clemson's passing game was effectively shut down throughout.

Stat of the game: 444. That's the number of yards Winston threw for against Clemson on Saturday, to go with three passing touchdowns and another on the ground. Winston has now played in four ACC games, and he's topped 300 yards and three scores in each one. There were plenty of other numbers worth noting -- FSU created four turnovers for the first time in two years, Boyd had perhaps the worst start of his career -- but Winston was the showstopper. His Heisman campaign is gaining steam with every game.

What Clemson learned: The Tigers aren't the class of the ACC. Perhaps it's unfair to judge Clemson too harshly here. Florida State is obviously a great team, and the momentum shifted in Florida State's favor so quickly that the Tigers had little chance to recover. Boyd struggled badly though, and whether it's fair or not, his long and successful career will certainly be remembered, in part, by his inability to beat Florida State during his final two seasons in Clemson.

What Florida State learned: The Seminoles' defense is really good. After a rough start to the season in which the unit looked shaky against the likes of Bethune-Cookman and Boston College, there were legitimate concerns that new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had installed a scheme that simply wasn't going to work with FSU's personnel. Turns out, they just needed a little time. Pruitt's 3-5-3 scheme worked to perfection against Clemson's spread offense, and Joyner, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones led the charge in a dominant defensive performance against one of the nation's elite offensive units.

What it means: Florida State is a legitimate national-title contender. It's tough to predict what the BCS standings will look like when they come out for the first time this week, but the Seminoles have easily the most impressive win of the season in college football, and they've rolled both of the ranked opponents they've played. Winston may be a Heisman favorite, the defense is clicking on all cylinders, and the Seminoles have now topped 40 points in every game this season. It's a resume that stacks up nicely against Oregon and Alabama.

#CampusConnection: Noles-Tigers Live

October, 19, 2013
The first top-5 matchup of the season – and the first in the ACC in eight years -- is almost here. As Florida State and Clemson battle it out on the field, head on over to Campus Connection at 8 ET and follow the action along with five of our reporters, including three from Death Valley.

Post your comments and questions and we’ll include as many of them as possible.

Get ramped up for Florida State-Clemson

October, 19, 2013

Editor's note: To watch the show on your smartphone, click here.

Get ready for Florida State-Clemson as reporters Andrea Adelson and Mark Schlabach preview Saturday night’s Top 5 matchup. Join us at 7:45 p.m. ET.

Video: Murray, Corso on FSU-Clemson

October, 19, 2013
Actor Bill Murray and Lee Corso make their predictions for Florida State at Clemson.

Video: Keys for Florida State-Clemson

October, 18, 2013

Jason Sehorn and Heather Dinich look forward to Florida State's meeting with Clemson on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The last Florida State quarterback to win a game at Clemson was a freshman.

It happened in 2001, and Chris Rix didn't realize he was supposed to be intimidated. He was from California, and the chaos of Death Valley was completely foreign to him. Ignorance, it turned out, was a luxury.

When Rix returned two seasons later, the noise and the energy and the crowd made for an overwhelming obstacle. James Robert Kennedy, the inspiration for the movie "Radio," led the Tigers down the hill and onto the field. The game hadn't begun, and Rix knew Florida State was in trouble.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston will get his first taste of the Death Valley experience on Saturday night.
"We had just seen the movie," Rix said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, shoot.' "

The No. 3-ranked Seminoles, fresh off a 37-0 thumping of Notre Dame, were stunned by Clemson, beginning a run of five straight losses in Death Valley -- a streak that looms over them in Saturday's matchup like a black cloud.

In four of the five losses during this streak, Florida State was the higher-ranked team when it arrived in Clemson. The players have changed -- from the veteran Rix in 2003 to Clint Trickett making his first start in relief of an injured EJ Manuel in 2011 -- and the results have been the same. There have been close losses (a 35-30 final in 2011) and ugly ones (35-14 in 2005, part of a three-game overall losing streak to end the regular season).

For all of its success under coach Jimbo Fisher, all of the rebuilding the program has done in the past four seasons, this remains a towering obstacle, and the Seminoles are making it a point of emphasis this week.

"Twelve years? That's crazy," senior linebacker Telvin Smith said. "I know I haven't won there, and that's a goal of mine. That's what this team is about -- overcoming obstacles and being defiant."

And yet, Death Valley has a history of swallowing up the defiant and overwhelming the unprepared.

Few ACC venues provide the same unwaveringly intimidating atmosphere, from the crazed crowd to the deafening noise to the frenetic entrance Clemson's players make, charging down the hill and onto the field, ready for battle.

"It's a crazy atmosphere, especially at the beginning of the game," Smith said. "If you're not a strong-minded person, you can definitely get intimidated in there."

Fisher said the atmosphere at Clemson compares favorably to the most intense SEC stadiums, and he said he'll wear two sets of headphones just to tune out the crowd noise and ignore the claustrophobic confines. James Wilder Jr. said tailbacks can't hear a quarterback standing just a few feet away. Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said Clemson and LSU were easily the loudest stadiums in which he ever coached. It's an environment tailback Karlos Williams said can't be replicated in practice, though he said Fisher tries to rattle his players by pumping in "terrible" music over loudspeakers during the week.

Still, as Fisher said, it's not the atmosphere that has stymied Florida State for the past 12 years -- it's the players on the field.

"Does the atmosphere make the players, or do the players make the stadium?" Fisher said. "First off, they have good players. Secondly, they're coached extremely well. And then third, to have a great environment of 80,000 folks that love football and are very passionate, I think all three of those things make it very tough to win in Death Valley."

When Florida State takes the field this season, again there will be a freshman at quarterback, and Jameis Winston insists he's not the type to be overwhelmed by his surroundings. Instead, he said, he's eager for the opportunity.

Many of Winston's teammates know exactly what to expect, however, and the memories of that 2011 loss remain fresh in their minds.

"We left with a nasty taste in our mouths last time," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We were there, knowing we should've won that game. We're going up there now, knowing it's going to be a loud, hostile environment. It's setting up for a great game."

Looking back on that win in 2001, Rix said his naiveté was a weapon on the field but admitted he never would have imagined that 12 years later, Florida State would still be looking for its next win in Death Valley.

When Clemson and Florida State take the field Saturday, however, the magnitude of the game and the environment won't be lost on anyone. With 12 years of frustration behind them, and a national championship potentially on the horizon, the Seminoles know what's at stake.

"I'm ready," safety Terrence Brooks said. "They know the expectations for this game. It's going to be a good one, and I can't wait."

Death Valley is their fortress. And come Saturday night, Clemson players know they must use their home field to their great advantage.

That is simply how it works at Memorial Stadium.

Flash back to the opener against top-five opponent Georgia, with all the noise, the overstuffed grandstands, the goose-bump-raising run down The Hill with Dabo Swinney memorably showing off his 4.4 40 skills. Clemson won 38-35 thanks to an assist from its manic crowd.

Georgia offensive lineman Chris Burnette, a fifth-year senior used to his fair share of ear-popping SEC stadiums, admitted, “Clemson was one of the more electric games and stadiums and atmospheres that I've been in since I've been playing.”

Clemson's Death Valley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson fans aim to break a record for the loudest crowd roar at a stadium.
Everybody at Clemson expects a more electric atmosphere against No. 6 Florida State, given the higher stakes on the line. Both teams not only want to keep their national championship hopes alive, but the winner here gets the upper hand in the race to the ACC title game.

To that end, the Clemson athletic department announced this week that it wants to break the Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium on the first defensive snap of the game. The current record -- 137.5 decibels -- was set just last week at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City during a Chiefs game.

Florida State practiced all week with noise piped in, standard procedure when it hits the road. But Clemson is not Pitt, nor is it Boston College. Clemson is a place where noise truly does become a factor.

The Seminoles have not won at Clemson since 2001, but they are not alone in their Death Valley struggles. Swinney is 18-2 in ACC home games (.900), the highest winning percentage in league history. He recently moved ahead of former Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, who had a 12-1-1 record at home against league foes from 1990 to '93. Bobby Bowden is third on the all-time list for home winning percentage at .861, with a 62-10 record in home ACC games at Florida State.

“Playing here in Death Valley, we’re trying not to ever lose a game,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “It’s a great atmosphere; the fans support us and it’s a great place to play. When we come out here, we don’t want anybody to invade our territory.”

South Carolina was the last team to do the invading, winning last year in Death Valley. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last ACC team to win in Death Valley: Miami, 30-21. The Hurricanes went into the game as the higher-ranked team and did not let the surroundings intimidate them.

“It’s not intimidating because once you’re on the field, you eliminate all the distractions in the stands,” said Miami receiver Allen Hurns, who played special teams as a freshman in that game. “You have to focus on what you have to get accomplished.”

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston also tried to downplay the advantages the Tigers have playing at home, saying, “All the noise stuff, the way we communicate on the field and the way we do things, I don’t really think that’s going to be a big factor. From the momentum standpoint, if the crowd gets into it and their players start getting amped up, that will probably be a big factor in the game, but the noise I don’t think has nothing to do with our offense.”

Winston has never experienced Death Valley, nor an atmosphere anywhere close to the one he will be a part of Saturday, so he can only assume what awaits him and his teammates.

His counterpart, Tajh Boyd, already knows.

“Clemson is different from any stadium I’ve ever played at because the fans truly are a factor,” Boyd said. “A lot of teams like to call their field the 12th man and this and that, but Clemson really does have an influence. If you look at that redshirt sophomore year, when we won those three games in a row -- Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech -- the Auburn game, I really, truly believe the interception came because it was so loud. It was crazy. The defense feeds off of that. The offense feeds off of that. It’s a ridiculous place to play in.

“The Florida State game [in 2011], whoever sacked Clint Trickett that year, the place just went into an uproar. Same way with the Georgia game this year. It’s live every game, but you get one of those real huge teams coming in here and it’s a ridiculous place to play at.”

For the record, it was Rennie Moore who had the key sack on Trickett on fourth down late in the game, with the Seminoles trying to drive for the winning score.

There was plenty to play for in that game. Both teams were in the Top 25, with ACC title hopes hanging in the balance. This game, though, means so much more. It just might be the best home atmosphere any Clemson player has experienced.

“Our fans, the environment they create, it's very, very loud, and then we've got good players that have really bought into taking a lot of pride in playing here at home,” Swinney said. “If you’re going to be a consistent program, you have to be consistent at home. Our guys have done a great job of that over the last few years.”

Indeed, home-field advantage could be the difference in the game.

University of Georgia reporter David Ching and ACC reporter Heather Dinich contributed to this report.

Video: Drive to the national championship

October, 17, 2013

Todd McShay goes over the latest changes in the AP Top 25 poll and previews the biggest game of the week: Florida State-Clemson.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was perhaps the signature play of running back James Wilder Jr.'s career, and he's gotten to watch it over and over this week.

Florida State clung to a four-point lead as the fourth quarter began in last season's game against Clemson, and Wilder had carried the ball just twice. His third run, however, changed the entire dynamic of the game.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Zuma Press/Icon SMIRB Devonta Freeman, who leads the Seminoles in rushing this season with 385 yards, didn't have a touch in last season's win over Clemson.
Wilder took the handoff from EJ Manuel, barreled over defenders, stiff-armed another and broke free for 35 yards to the Clemson 9-yard line. Two plays later, he scored, and Florida State cruised to a 49-37 win.

In the week leading up to this season's game, friends and fans have reminded Wilder of that run repeatedly, sending pictures and videos to his phone along with a message.

"'Do this again,'" Wilder said. "Everybody tells me every day, 'Stiff-arm them like last year.'"

As Florida State preps for this week's top-five showdown against Clemson, Wilder is finally feeling like that might be a possibility. Through the first five games of the season, his longest run is 24 yards -- 11 shy of his highlight against the Tigers in 2012 -- and he has been hampered by a sore shoulder since the opener.

But after a lighter workload early in the season and an off week to heal up, Wilder said he's finally feeling ready to run with that same bruising power he displayed last season.

"My shoulder is OK, full and back again," he said. "I feel more comfortable running the ball, not holding my arm up or nothing like that, using it like I’m supposed to. No hesitation."

That's good news for a Florida State running game that has flashed plenty of potential in the early part of the season but still hasn't clicked on all cylinders.

Against two overmatched nonconference opponents, FSU averaged a stellar 8.4 yards per carry, scoring 10 times on the ground. But in its three ACC games, Florida State is moving the ball at a far more pedestrian rate of 4.4 yards per rush with just six touchdowns. That's more than a yard per carry less than the Seminoles averaged in ACC games last season.

"There is definitely room for improvement," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We feel we've left a lot out there every week."

If Florida State plans to improve those numbers this week, Clemson figures to provide an interesting challenge.

The Tigers rank in the middle of the pack in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing an average of 3.9 yards per carry this season. That's actually a solid improvement from a year ago, when FSU ran for 287 yards against them. What's more, Clemson leads the country in tackles for loss with 61, with its defensive line making a slew of big plays behind the line of scrimmage.

But break down the numbers a bit more, and there does seem to be room for optimism for Florida State. Against FBS teams, Clemson is 12th in the ACC, allowing 4.43 yards per rush. Factor out yardage lost on sacks and examine only running plays, and opponents are averaging 5.62 yards per rush, 19th-most in the nation. And on all plays in which a runner makes it across the line of scrimmage, Clemson's defense has been gouged for 6.6 yards per rush.

"It seemed like they were kind of struggling to stop the run [against Georgia and Syracuse]," Wilder said, "but they're at home, and you can't really look at that."

Rather than worry about Clemson's stats, Florida State is focused on improving its own fundamentals. Erving said the tailbacks have worked to be a bit more patient, and Devonta Freeman, who didn't have a touch in last year's win, said a few new wrinkles were worked into the ground attack.

Freeman thinks the two weeks FSU has had to prepare against its own defense in practice should have the Seminoles ready.

"They're a very aggressive team. Their D-linemen and linebackers play as a whole unit," Freeman said. "But I feel like we see that every day in practice with our defense. It's going to be great competition to be out there."

Wilder has had plenty of reminders of what's expected, and he has passed along that motivation to his teammates in the Florida State backfield.

Last season's game showed the potential, but this season has shown there's still more work to be done.

"We’re definitely nowhere near satisfied, nowhere near our expectations running the ball," Wilder said. "We definitely are trying to pick it up this week.”

Clemson defense makes its own name

October, 17, 2013

CLEMSON, S.C. -- There is a new celebrity walking around the Clemson campus. His name is not Tajh or Sammy, though.

His name is Vic.

Racking up sack after sack on a much improved defense has made defensive end Vic Beasley one of the most recognizable players around town, earning hellos and handshakes at a clip that has surprised Beasley.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIDE Vic Beasley bypassed the NFL draft this year to return to Clemson to get his degree and improve his draft stock.
Indeed, the biggest development in this Clemson season to date has been the way the defense has ripped headlines away from the high-powered offense and made its own name. Simply put, the Tigers D cannot be called the weak link any longer.

Not when you consider what has happened through the first six games of the season:
  • Beasley leads the nation in sacks with nine and was the only Clemson player on the midseason All-American team. That’s right. The lone Clemson rep came from its defense.
  • The defense has held five consecutive opponents to 14 points or fewer, the first time that has happened since 1989.
  • Clemson ranks No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, higher than its scoring offense (No. 17). The last time Clemson finished a season in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense was 2007.
  • The Tigers rank in the top 25 in 13 statistical defensive categories.

“We came in with a big chip on our shoulder,” Beasley said. “A lot of people were doubting us and said we weren’t going to be the strength of this team, but I feel like we’ve become the strength of the team. No knock on our offense. I want our offense to be great too, but I feel like we’re making a statement to be the best in the country.”

In January 2012, coach Dabo Swinney fired Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator after a miserable 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. A performance like that would never happen again, not under his watch. Clemson had no problem playing top dollar for its assistants, and Swinney wasted no time targeting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

In 13 seasons with the Sooners, Venables had his group ranked in the top 20 in total defense eight times. When he looked at what he would have to work with at Clemson, he knew he could mold this group into an elite unit. Almost presciently, Venables said in the spring, “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t feel this was a place you could win every game and recruit the best players in the country.”

He talked at length about what makes a good defense, saying the best teams he has ever been associated with were player driven, bonded with a unique chemistry, a special focus and a willingness to work.

This Clemson group has all those qualities. Last week, Venables discussed the brotherhood that has developed among his players, how hard they are working and how his players just love to play. Period.

“There’s a freshness about that. It’s not like it’s pulling teeth to go to practice,” Venables said. “Guys practice well; they’re around the office a lot on their own. They’re a prideful group. We don’t spend a lot of time perpetuating anything that’s negative. Whether you start over every week, or every day or every year, to me I’m not big at living in the past, good or bad. We’ve got a group of guys that are easy to inspire, that they like to play and they respect each other. They’re high effort kind of guys.”

Seeking a new identity as a strength on the team has been a source of motivation and inspiration. Every player on this Clemson defense knows what was said after the Orange Bowl, a game that lingers still today. Like their coach, they never want to go through that again.

They rededicated themselves in the offseason, intent on becoming a more physical team that would never be outworked. So far, Clemson has demonstrated that physicality. Its front seven has done a terrific job, thanks to improved depth and the play of Beasley and fellow end Corey Crawford.

Venables said nobody has improved more than Crawford and linebacker Stephone Anthony, now starting in the middle. He described them both as playing on a different planet. The secondary has also made strides from a year ago, thanks to contributions from several freshmen and a group of veterans that has been able to stay healthy.

What’s more, these players are now in Year 2 under Venables, so improvement was expected. You can see that when comparing the defensive stats over the first six weeks of last season to the first six weeks of this season. Clemson is giving up an average of 11 fewer points and 110 fewer yards per game.

“Last year at this time, we were very inconsistent from an execution standpoint and just doing all the little things that we needed to do,” Swinney said. “But that's been the biggest improvement. Guys are where they are supposed to be and have a good feel playing with high energy, and we are just much more experienced on that side of the ball than we've been in a while.”

It has not all been perfect for Clemson. The Tigers gave up more than 200 yards rushing to Georgia and more than 300 yards rushing to Syracuse. They have given up too many big plays -- 26 for 20 or more yards (15 pass, 11 run). They are still thin on depth at linebacker and in the secondary.

But they are better. The goal is to keep on this upward trend. This is only a start.

“We feel like we’ve earned some respect over the course of these last couple of weeks,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We know we’re not perfect and we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re playing pretty good, but we can be a lot better. We’re working to be the best we can be.”

Then more recognition is sure to follow.

Video: All-Access with Dabo Swinney

October, 16, 2013

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney talks to Shannon Spake in advance of the Tigers' showdown with Florida State on Saturday.