Tigers have opportunity to close strong

There are plenty of reasons to feel good about the final month of the season.

So much for the house of horrors in Winston Salem, N.C. Leading up to Thursday's game, the story line that gained steam focused on how Clemson has struggled at Wake Forest and against the pesky Demon Deacons in general. But Thursday night, the Tigers put to rest any of that talk with an easy 42-13 win.

To be honest, that's the way Clemson should beat Wake Forest, but we all know that hasn't happened all the time. But maybe that has turned around a bit with Dabo Swinney as the program's head coach.

Other than last year's three-point game, which Clemson was really lucky to win, Swinney's teams have been able to control Jim Grobe's bunch, winning the other three meetings by a combined 84 points.

Outside of some uncharacteristic penalties, which this team hasn't had a problem with this year, the Tigers looked prepared and ready for Thursday's game. They were smooth and relaxed and did exactly what they had to do to dominate, executing all three phases in a complete-game performance that should have all Tigers fans excited.

That's just the latest sign of progress for this program.

For years, Clemson fans knew what was in front of them. Their team had not won an ACC title since 1991 or even 10 games in a season since the year before that. But Swinney's team last year checked both of those off its list.

Entering this season, Clemson fans were aware the Tigers hadn't played well at the Georgia Dome, or Atlanta overall, but they crossed that off the list with a win over Auburn in the season opener.

And Clemson checked off its latest box at Wake Forest with a Thursday night win. Entering that game, Clemson was 1-9 in those games, but it can now put that stat behind it a little bit and move on to the next one.

This is not the same program that went to Winston-Salem and lost in 2008, which cost Tommy Bowden his job as the head coach. The differences, even though Swinney was on Bowden's staff, are startling as this program moves forward. Instead of hanging over the program with some doom and gloom, all the hurdles from the past are embraced and faced head on by these players and coaches.

And that's why the team has been so successful checking those things off its list the past few seasons.

SMOOTH SAMMY: It took eight games, but for the first time this season, Sammy Watkins looked like that Sammy Watkins. He was the same Sammy Watkins who was so dynamic last year and almost unstoppable in a tremendous freshman season.

Watkins was explosive and had several big-yardage plays, and he finally got into the end zone with a 61-yard touchdown pass from Tajh Boyd.

Watkins had eight catches for 202 yards, setting a program record for receiving yards in a game, a record DeAndre Hopkins set earlier this season. But most importantly, Watkins was in the flow of the offense. The past couple of games it looked like Watkins' role in the offense was forced a little bit. It was almost as if offensive coordinator Chad Morris knew he had to get Watkins involved.

That wasn't the case Thursday as it just came natural, and Watkins finally had his breakout performance. That has to be a big plus for this offense moving forward, and it has to be a big concern for the opposing defensive coordinators left on the schedule.

TAJH ON TARGET: Boyd played possibly the best half that we've ever seen from a Clemson quarterback in the first two quarters Thursday night.

In sparking Clemson to a 35-0 lead (before Wake Forest scored late in the half), the junior quarterback connected on 17-of-21 passes for 286 and five touchdowns. And those five scores went to five different receivers as Boyd spread the ball around to all of his weapons and didn't focus only on Watkins and Hopkins. Each of those two caught a touchdown in the first half, but so did Brandon Ford, Sam Cooper and Charone Peake. Boyd had it all going Thursday, hitting his spots when he needed to get the ball into a tight window and finding the open man at other times.

For all the people who were concerned about Boyd and thinking he was dropping into a funk like last year, he quieted that talk Thursday, completing 27-of-38 passes for a program-record 428 yards and the five touchdowns. He connected with nine different receivers, and this offense is at its best when he is sharing the ball and spreading the wealth.

ANOTHER STEP FORWARD: The Clemson defense played its best game of the season, and it's not even really close.

The numbers back that up. The 13 points Wake Forest scored were the fewest the Tigers have allowed against an FBS team, while the Demon Deacons managed only 290 total yards against a defense that was allowing more than 400 per game. Wake Forest was inept on the ground, rushing 28 times for 45 yards, and on third down, converting 6-of-18 in those situations. But the numbers don't tell the whole story for this unit.

The Tigers' tackling was the best it has been the entire season. There was really only one missed tackle in the first half, although that helped lead to Wake Forest's first touchdown, as the Clemson players were much better with their fundamentals.

The coverage on the back end was also better as there were not as many wide-open receivers, something which has been a problem. A depleted secondary because of injuries was a concern, but the defensive backs who were in the game stepped up their play and got the job done (Wake Forest completed only 28-of-45 passes in the game). And finally, the play up front was outstanding. There was a better push by the line and linebackers, and a defense that had nine sacks going into the game had five, while holding Wake Forest to 1.8 yards per carry.

In short, there were big improvements all over the field for the defense, and that has been the trend for this season, especially since the loss to Florida State.

UP NEXT: The Tigers stay on the road Saturday when they travel to Durham, N.C., to face Duke. The game could have been a matchup of the ACC's division leaders, but the Blue Devils were blown out in that kind of game by Florida State, 48-7.

The Tigers still need some help – a Seminoles loss -- if they're going to get back on top of the Atlantic Division. But they can't really worry about things they can't control.

If Clemson can keep winning -- Saturday will mark its final road game of the season -- it can still have a special season, no matter what happens with the Seminoles. But that can't happen if the Tigers lose to the Blue Devils. The two teams haven't played since 2008, a 31-7 Clemson win, and they haven't played in Durham since 2007, a 47-10 Tigers win. Clemson leads the all-time series 35-16-1 and hasn't lost at Duke since 2004, although that was one of the program's most frustrating losses in recent history, coming a week after Clemson defeated a ranked Miami team on the road.

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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