Clemson must learn to win ugly

CLEMSON - If the Tigers are going to improve on their seven wins from 2008 it very well could come down to one thing.

Winning ugly.

With a defense that should easily rank in the upper-echelon of the league, don't be surprised if Clemson is involved in a number of close low-scoring games this year.

You know what we are talking about here - the ugly games Clemson fans used to moan and groan about when the Tigers were winning ACC championships with regularity. The 13-10 games or the 17-14 games or the games that came down to a defensive stand in the fourth quarter or a game-winning field goal.

Given the defensive nature of the ACC a year ago (not one team in the league ranked in the top 50 in the nation in total offense while seven ranked in the top 50 in total defense) it seems like a safe bet to assume it will once again be a defensive-oriented conference.

This isn't to suggest Clemson's offense will be terrible mind you, but if the defense is able to perform anywhere close to what the coaching staff expects, it wouldn't make sense for the Tigers to throw the ball 50 times a game, would it?

Manage the game on offense, dominate the game on defense and make a play at the end to win - sounds easy enough doesn't it?

Just ask head coach Dabo Swinney.

"I hope as long as I coach that defense is the strength of our time," he said. "You win a lot of games when they can't score. Surely you can luck up somewhere and kick a field goal.

"Obviously I love offense and I want to score 100 points a game but I love it when you've got a salty defense and they are a salty bunch [this year]."

"Salty" is dead on when you consider in the first major scrimmage of preseason camp Tuesday just one offensive touchdown was scored the entire day.

And yes while it's still early, it still goes back to one simple obstacle this program must overcome - and that's finding a way to win the games that they simply never could under Tommy Bowden.

Need a couple of painful reminders to illustrate what we are talking about?

In 2005, Clemson lost in overtime to Boston College, 16-13 at home and also 10-9 at Georgia Tech.

The following year it was a 13-12 loss, again at home, to lowly Maryland.

In 2007 it was another 13-3 loss to Georgia Tech combined with a 20-17 setback at Boston College.

Last year it was Maryland again inflicting damage, this time to the tune of 20-17 inside of Death Valley. Wake Forest also joined the mix with a 12-7 win in Winston-Salem in what proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Tommy Bowden.

These ugly, defensive-dominated games have proven to be the demise of Clemson football in each of the last four seasons. In some instances, it has been just one single point, one play even, that has separated the Tigers from a mediocre bowl and a berth in the ACC Championship game for the opportunity to play in the BCS.

With so many painful memories to choose from, Clemson nation should get used to the idea that it's okay to win a close, low-scoring game against Maryland or a slugfest against Georgia Tech.

It doesn't have to be pretty, and with this team this year, it may not be.

Remember, there's a new quarterback who will be throwing to new at least two new wide receivers and Clemson's offensive line hasn't proven it's emerged from its two year funk either.

Sure, there's reason for optimism, but the only proven commodities we know about right now is the defense and C.J. Spiller. Even Jacoby Ford, Clemson's preseason All-ACC wide out has yet to practice because of a hamstring injury.

However, if anything, Swinney's control of the program mid-season a year ago provided a small glimpse of what could be in store for the football program this year.

Remember the Virginia game last year?

Clemson managed just 192 yards of total offense, including just 13 first downs in a 13-3 win. The Tigers used a conservative game plan based on field position and defense to win the game in the fourth quarter.

The Tigers also managed to beat Atlantic Division champion Boston College on the road, which was Swinney's first win as a head coach, with just 339 yards of offense, thanks to their defense and special teams.

Again- it wasn't pretty, but as Swinney said after Wednesday's practice, "There's going to be times when we have to kick four field goals to win. We have to win games 12-9. That comes down to defense and special teams."

"We almost lost the national championship in 1992 because we were playing La. Tech and we hadn't done anything all day. Next thing you know David Palmer brings back a punt and we win 13-7. If you are sound in the kicking game, really good on defense and don't beat ourselves on offense we'll have a chance to win. People can complain and critique all they want to. But it's about the 'W.' Period."

With teams like Georgia Tech, TCU, Boston College on the 2009 schedule- Swinney's words carry even more weight than the normal discussion after a mid-August practice. Those are the teams that simply don't beat themselves because they're physical, they're hard-nosed and they're extremely well-coached.

So get used to it.

It may not be a thing of beauty but if the Tigers are going to win anything this year, don't be surprised if it comes via the ugly route. Top Stories