DURHAM, N.C. -- C.J. Spiller was grinning so wide he could have fit his entire postgame meal in at once.
"Yeah, it's a relief," he said, moments after Clemson put the finish on a 47-10 drubbing of Duke. "It was something we needed."
Not "we," C.J.
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Through Clemson's eight games before Saturday, Spiller hadn't found the magical touch he'd displayed so prominently last year. Those six 50-yard-plus touchdowns he'd produced so brilliantly last season were an afterthought as the sophomore struggled to regain his once-legendary ability.
There were plenty of reasons why. Spiller didn't have the experienced offensive line blocking for him this year, leading to increased defensive pressure in the box. He also kept trying to spin and juke for more yardage instead of lowering his head and charging, which got him a lot more bruises and hardly any big gains.
There was also the increased desire to build a strong passing game, this time with a quarterback who was extremely capable of doing it. The Tigers were winning but Spiller's numbers plummeted, his school record for yards per carry (7.6) devolving into a 4.3 mess this season, with only 406 rushing yards in eight games.
But Saturday, Spiller saw the kickoff soaring end over end to him, and like he had so many times before, caught it and looked for the sideline. The defender stepped in, Spiller hip-checked him out of the way and saw the lane wide open.
"When I get close down there," he said, "I'm just looking for the end zone."
He jogged in virtually untouched for an 84-yard touchdown, making him Clemson's new record-holder in 50-yard-plus TDs and giving the Tigers an added boost. His kick return, seconds after Cullen Harper ran in one touchdown and Cortney Vincent recorded a safety, gave Clemson 16 points in 39 seconds and an insurmountable 26-7 lead.
"That deflated them," coach Tommy Bowden said. "It's a shot in the arm for a team that can do it."
And now one of those teams could be Clemson, again.
"They tried to kick it away from me but that one, it came to me," Spiller explained. "I had to make them pay for it."
It couldn't have come at a better time. Clemson's next three games are against No. 21 Wake Forest, No. 2 Boston College and No. 23 South Carolina. The Tigers, improving to 7-2 and sure to raise their No. 25 ranking, are still in the hunt for the ACC title but need BC to lose.
With a renewed faith in their return game, it adds one more dimension to Clemson's ability to score. The Tigers were hurting this week and wondering how they'd respond when their other kick returner, speedster Jacoby Ford, was lost for the season with a broken ankle.
The worry disappeared with another one of Spiller's epic runs.
"We were talking about it all week," said James Davis, Spiller's backfield mate. "I was telling him, 'Got to take it to house for Jacoby, you know.'"
Spiller heard it and delivered.
"This game is really for (Ford)," he said. "He just loves to play football and he's done for the season. I wanted to score for him."