Clemson University

Forget sneaking up

Cullen Harper and the Tigers know not to underestimate Furman's chances against a BCS foe.
Cullen Harper and the Tigers know not to underestimate Furman's chances against a BCS foe.

CLEMSON -- Clemson tight ends coach Billy Napier knows perhaps better than anyone on the Tigers what it's like to play at a smaller school, take on an Atlantic Coast Conference team and win.

Napier was a reserve quarterback with Furman in 1999 when the Paladins routed North Carolina 28-3.

Napier's loyalties lie on the other side this week when No. 20 Clemson faces Furman -- or do they? "I checked his cell phone" to see if there were any strategy calls from Napier to his friends on the Paladins staff, Tigers' head coach Tommy Bowden joked this week.

Not to worry. These days Napier is 100 percent Clemson and will do whatever he can to help the Tigers win its 29th straight game over the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, club.

"Having been part of that program, I know the chip they carry on their shoulders into games like this," Napier said. "It's an opportunity to make a statement."

The schools -- separated in South Carolina's Upstate by a 30-minute drive -- first met in 1896 in the first game ever played by the Tigers. The Paladins started their football program in 1889.

Clemson took that first meeting 111 years ago, 14-6, and have kept beating the Paladins much of the time since. The Tigers hold a 40-10-4 edge, including the last 28. They're 17-0 at Death Valley, site of Saturday's matchup.

The programs have taken differing routes since that first game. Clemson joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, where it won the 1981 national championship, funds the NCAA Division I maximum of 85 scholarships and plays at the sport's highest level.

Furman joined the Southern Conference, an FCS league, where it won the I-AA title in 1988 and, with a max of 63 scholarships, has maintained its status as a small-school power.

Furman owns five victories over teams who, like Clemson, are in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the last of which came at Chapel Hill in stunningly easy fashion.

Napier remembered speedy wideout Des Kitchings catching a pair of TD passes against the Tar Heels. Furman tailback Louis Ivory, a year before he rushed for 2,079 yards, chipped in with 177 yards and a touchdown.

And don't forget, Napier said, the Paladins win their share of games from SoCon rival Appalachian State, something most Tigers are keenly aware of.

"We don't want to end up like Michigan," Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper said.

The Tigers have done a good job, for the most part, of handling teams they're supposed to in coach Bowden's nine seasons with a 21-6 regular-season mark against nonconference opponents. Two of those defeats were to rival South Carolina (in 2001 and last season), two were to Georgia (2002 and 2003) and the others with the others to Marshall and pre-ACC Virginia Tech in Bowden's first season.

Bowden says part of the reason is paying attention to what your team must improve. "I do think you have to talk about it and then you try to worry about yourself," he said.

In the Tigers case, that means finding a "nastier" gear for offensive linemen and crisper tackling out of the defense. Bowden was disappointed when Louisiana-Monroe about doubled their rushing yards -- and scored two TDs -- in the final quarter after Clemson had looked strong in going up 42-13.

The Tigers eventually won 49-26.

Bowden wants his offensive linemen to hold blocks longer, displaying the same "nasty" trait last year's group had. Clemson lineman Thomas Austin says that side hasn't fully come out yet, but it will.

"I think our offensive line has it, we just have to do it in a game," Austin said.

This might be a good place to get that done.

The longer Furman hangs around, the dicier things become for Clemson, trying for its first 3-0 start in seven years.

The Tigers "are very, very physical and very, very fast," Furman coach Bobby Lamb said. "We've got to somehow, some way go over there with a game plan where we're going to try and slow them down with some misdirection and some different things."