Clemson University

Tigers' engine heating up for late-season title run

Clemson's James Davis runs for a 70-yard touchdown as Duke's Adrian Aye-Darko gives chase.
Clemson's James Davis runs for a 70-yard touchdown as Duke's Adrian Aye-Darko gives chase.

CLEMSON -- For a team enamored with automotive analogies, senior left guard Chris McDuffie figured it fitting to blame Clemson's slow offensive starts on a cold engine.

"You have to keep turning the key until the thing fires up," McDuffie said.

"Right now, we could use a tune-up."

The No. 20 Tigers are the driver's seat of the ACC title race with two home regular-season games remaining.

But if their two previous losses are any indication, their lack of initial acceleration could prove the difference in whether they cross the finish line ahead of or behind the competition.

In the first quarter of the last five games, Clemson has been outscored 41-13 and trailed each of its five opponents, deficits that nonetheless were surmountable against the likes of Central Michigan, Maryland and Duke.

Tommy Bowden said he has refrained from pushing the panic button because the Tigers (7-2, 4-2 ACC) enter Saturday's game against Wake Forest (6-3, 4-2) having registered 147 points the last three contests.

Yet one of the unmistakable denominators of their losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech was an early deficit that -- by cause, effect or both -- led Clemson to abandon the running game and thereby render top playmakers James Davis and C.J. Spiller irrelevant.

The irony is the team's defense continues juggling the inverse problem; four of the last five opponents have marched for points within their opening two drives before the Tigers tightened the screws.

"You'd like to say a team studies you for a week and then they come out and use all that new stuff and go down and score," Bowden said. "They get the first score, and you say, well, why don't you do that? Maybe we take more chances and other teams take more dinky stuff. I don't know."

Said offensive coordinator Rob Spence: "It does take time to get into a rhythm and get a feel for how their defensive line is playing the zone play, how we're reacting to certain formations and for our players to get adjusted to how they adjusted their defense over the course of a week."

That said, the Tigers have appeared bent on displaying the fruits of an improved passing game from the outset, only to sputter out of the gate when its timing and efficiency were not there.

Quarterback Cullen Harper has been admittedly off-target early in several of the games, which has been exacerbated on a case-by-case basis by factors ranging from insufficient run blocking, penalties and dropped passes.

Clemson has taken the field for 19 possessions the past five first quarters. Of those, more than half were three-and-outs (10). Only five lasted six plays or longer, and three of the drives resulted in missed field goals.

"It seems like we're always just a little bit off," Harper said. "We've put that behind us, but going into this week, we had better get off to good starts."

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the slow starts as they relate to Wake Forest are that three of Harper's four interceptions have occurred in the first quarter.

The Demon Deacons' ascension to conference title contenders the past two seasons has coincided with their defense's tendency to generate turnovers and timely stops -- characteristics that have branded the unit as "opportunistic."

While Wake Forest ranks sixth in the ACC in rushing defense and ninth in passing defense, its 22.2 points allowed per game could be much worse if the team was not leading the conference in turnovers forced at 25 (12 fumbles, 13 interceptions).

Junior cornerback Alphonso Smith, a high-risk, high-reward player, has four interceptions and three forced fumbles alone.

And as much as missed opportunities or abysmal special teams play contributed to Clemson's two losses, the fact remains that five of the Tigers' league-low 10 total turnovers came against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Those accounted for the only points off turnovers Clemson has yielded this season.

"They live off turnovers," Spiller said. "We can't give them any momentum. You put the ball on the ground against this team, they're going to make you pay."