Clemson University

Tigers look to keep rolling at Duke, avoid loss like 3 years ago

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper walks off the field pumping his fist for the fans after Clemson defeated Maryland 30-17 at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md.
Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper walks off the field pumping his fist for the fans after Clemson defeated Maryland 30-17 at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md.

CLEMSON -- Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper was just a spectator then, but he won't ever forget his last trip to Duke.

"It was awful," Harper said Tuesday.

That's because the Tigers, fresh off a gritty overtime win at 11th-ranked Miami the week before, stumbled against the woeful Blue Devils.

Harper will spend time this week reminding his teammates of that week before they face a similar situation against Duke on Saturday.

The Tigers (6-2, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) returned to the national rankings at No. 25 with a solid, 30-17 win at Maryland this past weekend.

A win at Duke seems guaranteed, right? After all, the Blue Devils haven't won an ACC game in 22 tries.

Harper knows too well how Duke got the last league victory -- and who the opponent was.

Harper was on the Clemson sidelines at Wallace Wade Stadium three years ago during what would turn out to be his redshirt season. But he got to travel with the team and was stunned by how lifeless the Tigers were during the game.

The bitter memory, though, was Matt Brooks' 53-yard field goal that lifted Duke to the improbable 16-13 victory over the Tigers.

"That thing would've been good from 70 yards," Harper said with a smile.

Clemson coach Tommy Bowden has spoken to his players about keeping up the emotion and intensity from a week ago.

"My team knows," Bowden says about Duke's last ACC victory. The Blue Devils (1-7) lost to North Carolina after beating the Tigers. They've gone 0-8 in conference the past two seasons and have so far lost all five ACC games this fall.

Records, though, show the Tigers have had their struggles at Duke.

Clemson holds a 21-4 advantage in the series since 1981. All four of those defeats have come at Wallace Wade, including in the Tigers most recent appearance there.

Bowden thinks that memory should be enough to keep his players focused on their task. He admits, however, that Duke's lack of atmosphere can distract teams if they're not careful.

"Environment is an issue," Bowden said.

Also an issue could be the loss of Clemson's speedy receiver Jacoby Ford, who broke an ankle against Maryland and is out for the rest of the season.

Ford, who won the ACC's 60-meter indoor title this past winter, was the only Division I player to return a kickoff and a punt at least 90 yards for a touchdown last season.

"You can't replace his speed," Bowden said.

The way Clemson's played the past two weeks, it might not matter who takes Ford's place.

The Tigers put up 1,084 yards and 100 points in wins over Central Michigan and Maryland. The offensive line has begun to gel and with it, the running game has picked up dramatically.

Clemson's star tailbacks, James Davis and C.J. Spiller, combined for 417 yards rushing the past two games. The duo, known as "Thunder and Lightning," managed only 74 total yards on the ground in losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

"Sometimes it takes a while for things to get going," Spiller said. "We're playing with a lot more confidence now."

The same can be said of Spiller, who a month ago was questioning his running style and tactics. These days, Spiller has the free-and-easy gait he showed off his freshman year -- something that made him one of the ACC's top freshmen.

"I'm having a lot more fun out there," Spiller said.

Clemson hopes it can add to the fun this weekend at Duke, instead of adding another cautionary tale about losing focus.

"This is the biggest game of the year so far," Spiller said. "We can't let ourselves get sidetracked. We've got to go up there with a mission."