Clemson University

Egos bruised, Tigers must renew focus

CLEMSON -- There is a sports medicine theory that suggests athletes gradually lose their ability to heal quickly the more significant injuries they endure.

For that reason alone, No. 22 Clemson should be listed as questionable for Saturday's 6 p.m. showdown with No. 15 Virginia Tech.

A humbling 13-3 defeat at Georgia Tech last weekend left the previously unbeaten Tigers with a bruised ego.

Based on medical history, their confidence level will be re-evaluated later this week, as might their spine.

"We're going to have to show some backbone and show that game isn't going to affect us the rest of the year," junior receiver Aaron Kelly said.

After Georgia Tech enacted its revenge from a 2006 pummeling, Clemson (4-1, 2-1 ACC) would figure to possess the emotional edge against a Hokies team that rendered it an invertebrate a year ago.

But as defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson's post-game pep talk perhaps illustrated, doing so comes at the risk of focusing on avoiding another meltdown.

Last October, the Tigers went to Virginia Tech with a 7-1 record, No. 10 ranking and control of their ACC division title destiny.

The Hokies exposed quarterback Will Proctor's deficiencies and bulldozed Clemson's defense with a power running game in a 24-7 romp that permanently tucked the shell-shocked Tigers' tails.

"The team morale was different," junior receiver Tyler Grisham said. "We were thinking about the negatives and weren't trying to come back and say it was one game, we can come back and win the ACC championship. We didn't look at it like that. We were just disappointed."

To the point, Grisham said it appeared some veterans mailed in their performances once there was a perception Clemson's lofty goals were unattainable.

A plunge into the tank followed, with the Tigers losing three of their final four games to then-unranked teams.

Junior tailback James Davis said there were internal rumblings that certain seniors had turned their eye toward personal NFL goals. Eight seniors were in the starting lineup, not including corner C.J. Gaddis, who turned pro early.

Which leads to one of the two differences Clemson's players see in this week's attempted recovery: leadership.

Because only nine recruited scholarship seniors remain -- and none of the five senior starters are vocal-leader types -- the prevailing voice in the locker room has come from the team's prominent junior class.

Jackson preached the one-game-at-a-time approach after the Georgia Tech egg. Davis and defensive end Phillip Merling are also frequently cited as establishing the team's pulse, while quarterback Cullen Harper and safety Michael Hamlin are viewed as leaders by example.

The other difference -- Clemson exited Virginia Tech last season with the feeling it had been outmatched and overwhelmed.

By virtue of the four missed field goals, at least eight dropped passes (including two possible touchdowns) and various miscues that stalled drives, the Tigers can make the case their Georgia Tech failings were largely self-inflicted.

"We learned a lot of hard but valuable lessons last year about how long the season is," sophomore tight end Michael Palmer said.

"We can't play with a mindset to be afraid of having things spiral. We have to go out there with the same confidence we had two weeks ago and even Saturday. We have to know we're good and can win and control what we can control."

NO. 15 VIRGINIA TECH (4-1, 1-0 ACC) AT NO. 22 CLEMSON (4-1, 2-1 ACC)

• When: 6 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson

• TV: ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Sold out