Avoding the letdown

DeAndre Hopkins was right on the mark Monday when he said that Clemson played down to some opponents' level last year but then stepped up in big games.

We saw that in an embarrassing loss to N.C. State and a closer-than-expected win over Maryland. And it was evident early in the season in wins over Troy and Wofford when the Tigers struggled quite a bit in games that should have been blowouts.

On the flip side were wins over Virginia Tech twice, Florida State and Auburn as the Tigers were at their best on the big stage (except, of course, in the bowl game that shall not be mentioned).

That lack of focus at times kept a terrific season from being an amazing season, and focus has been a big theme for this year's team.

It was there after an emotional win over Auburn when the Tigers had to come back to earth for games against Ball State and Furman. And it has been evident in the past two wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech after a disheartening loss to Florida State.

Keeping that focus certainly will be a big key the rest of the season, starting this week against Virginia Tech.

The Tigers are back in the hunt in the ACC's Atlantic Division after N.C. State's win over Florida State two weeks ago, but that game won't matter if Clemson doesn't win out. Looking at the Seminoles' schedule (at Miami and at Virginia Tech, most notably), there's a good chance that there is another ACC loss in there somewhere, but it's hard to believe that the Seminoles will lose two more conference games. So if they finish with two conference losses, the Tigers will need to win the rest of their ACC games to take the division.

That means they can't lack focus, and they have to be ready for each and every contest that awaits them.

After the game against Virginia Tech there are trips to Wake Forest and Duke, and while most fans would see easy wins with those two programs on the schedule, that's not necessarily the case. Wake Forest is always pesky, and Duke is much improved this season.

Then there are home games against Maryland and N.C. State, and both teams have been better than expected through the first half of the season.

Finally, the season wraps up with the annual rivalry game against South Carolina, and everyone knows how much focus can mean in that game. The Gamecocks have had it the past three years and have won all three, while the Tigers have struggled mightily in those games.

For the Tigers to have the kind of season they hope for, they can't have those kinds of struggles. Last year, Clemson was 8-0 and stumbled to a 2-4 finish. This year's Tigers are 5-1 and need to avoid a similar slide in the second half if they're going to win the Atlantic Division, the ACC championship or anything else that is out there in front of them.

But none of those goals will be attainable with a loss this week against the Hokies, and that game needs to be the Tigers' only focus. Luckily for Clemson fans, the Tigers have played well against Virginia Tech the past couple of meetings and seem to have the Hokes' number.

The Tigers dominated last year's games, winning 23-3 and 38-10. They were especially dominant in the second half of those games, outscoring the Hokies 13-0 in the first game and 28-0 in the ACC championship game. And it wasn't like it was just the Tigers' high-flying offense that won those games; both were all-around strong performances. The special teams were solid, as well, and the Clemson defense controlled Logan Thomas and the Virginia Tech offense throughout.

In fact, in the first game, the Clemson offense didn't play at a high level as the defense ruled the game. Clemson finished with just 323 yards, and Tajh Boyd completed only 13-of-32 passes for 204 yards, but the Hokies did even less. Virginia Tech had 258 total yards – 125 passing and 133 rushing – and never really threatened the Clemson defense.

For the two games, the Hokies completed 37-of-71 passes for 399 yards and rushed 69 times for 189 yards, while the Tigers completed 32-of-62 passes for 444 and rushed 80 times for 336 yards. The Tigers won the turnover margin, as well, with one interception and no fumbles while the Hokies had five turnovers – three interceptions and two fumbles.

In short, the Tigers stepped up on the big stage and played their best while the Hokies did not. Clemson will need more of the same Saturday to get the second half of the season started off on the right foot.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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