Clemson University

Tigers' look to quiet Gamecocks' offense

CLEMSON -- Although rarely at a loss for anecdotes, Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning described his writing style as to the point.

He hopes there is no deal in the works for a sequel to The Garnet Letter.

After USC thrashed his unit for a season-high 492 yards, Koenning penned a note to players questioning why some had not taken the defense's recent collapse more personally.

Koenning, away on a recruiting trip, had a graduate assistant distribute the letters at the end of a group meeting two days after the game.

He never received any feedback, perhaps because few returning players even recall receiving it.

For the few who did, Koenning's point has reverberated this week as the Tigers attempt to avoid last year's pitfall at USC and recover from the crushing Boston College defeat.

"Here we are in the same situation," senior linebacker Nick Watkins said. "Are we going to tuck our tail and be scared or are we going to stand up and fight?"

The answer figures to be one of the deciding factors in the third match-up between Koenning and USC play-caller Steve Spurrier.

In both coaches' rivalry debut two years ago, Clemson prevailed 13-9 as the Gamecocks mustered just three field goals and 347 yards of total offense, committing four turnovers in the process.

The pendulum swung to Spurrier's side last season when the Tigers were gashed in all defensive facets, surrendering 208 rushing yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 28 first downs against a reputedly pass-oriented, impatient attack.

Koenning said afterward his was not the first rear end Spurrier had beaten, yet he frequently admitted thereafter that Clemson's performance continually gnawed at him, saying players seemed to be in "a bizarro world, like on Seinfeld."

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of assessing the game film -- which he reviewed numerous times -- was determining whether their shortcomings were a product of schematic approach, a lack of effort or a confluence of both.

"I guess only time will tell, because we're different but we're the same," Koenning said Tuesday. "We're different in some of our personnel, but we're the same in this is who we are."

Koenning's philosophical approach may have remained intact, but so has the scenario in which Clemson is coming off elimination from ACC title contention.

The Tigers had dropped two of three games entering last year's USC game. With their visions of grandeur suddenly dissipated, Watkins said a number of players on the senior-laded squad developed separate agendas -- not to mention some merely wished the season over.

Alas, Koenning said he made "a grave mistake" in thinking the Tigers could win one-on-one battles up front.

He did not provide specifics, but Clemson's apparent strategy had been to line star defensive end Gaines Adams wide to generate the pass rush necessary to potentially rattle USC quarterback Blake Mitchell.

The Tigers failed to register a sack, and the alignment invited the Gamecocks to feature their staple lead draw play.

When that happened, Clemson's remaining linemen were routinely driven out of their gaps, and linebackers and safeties alike accrued an alarming number of whiffs on attempted arm tackles.

"As I recall last year's demeanor, it wasn't an easy thing to do to get them inspired, and it obviously hurt us," Koenning said.

"If we don't go down there with a major-league attitude, we're going to get embarrassed. And I think they know that."

As exemplified by the scene in Clemson's locker room after the Boston College loss.

Once coach Tommy Bowden had completed his post-game address, junior defensive end Phillip Merling assembled teammates and spoke of the importance of the USC rivalry. Watkins chimed in as well, reinforcing the need for the Tigers to stay together.

Junior defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson pointed to that moment as the difference between these Tigers and their predecessors; a year ago, no one had the gumption or apparent desire to speak up as a unifying force.

"I told the guys if our motto was 'Finish the job,' we still have to finish," Watkins said. "It feels like we had a million dollars in our hand and we just got clipped while trying to get away. We can't have the money, but life goes on. We have to make the best of our situation and just move on."