Fans may think the season is over, but for the players and coaches, there is plenty at stake.
Even though the team has lost two conference games leaving them in the pack with Virginia, Virginia Tech and Florida State, the ‘Canes still have the opportunity to win the conference if they win their final three games against UVA, Wake Forest and Va. Tech.
Some may say that there is no way that will happen with the way the defense has played of late, and the way the offense struggled against Clemson last Saturday, but these are the same players that found a way to beat Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville and North Carolina State earlier this year.
The key this week though for the ‘Canes is to stay upbeat and realize that there are still three big games left that will likely land them in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl on January 3, 2005, if they win out.
And it will start this weekend in Charlottesville when the ‘Canes take the field against Virginia in what will be a very hostile environment.
So what will Larry Coker and his staff do to convince this team it can still win the big game after losing two heartbreakers to opponents that were both clearly inferior over the past two weeks?
"We have to make sure that we put together a game plan offensively, defensively and on special teams that we are confident will work and that our players are confident in," Coker said. "We have to make sure that every pass we throw in practice we complete and every run we make we block well on."
Beyond the possibility of having a three-game losing streak for the first time since 1999 when the team dropped games to Penn State, East Carolina and Florida State before rebounding to finish 9-4, one thing that should motivate the ‘Canes is the fact they are three and a half point underdogs. This is the first time in quite a while the ‘Canes have been underdogs to a team other than Florida State.
But it's irrelevant if the ‘Canes don't come out ready to play some football, especially in the trenches where they have simply been overpowered for most of the past eight quarters of football.
"We have to pursue the football on defense," Coker said. "They (Virginia) are a very physical football team and have one of the best offensive lines in the country. We have to pursue the quarterback and running backs."
The ‘Canes were able to put a little pressure on Clemson in the first half, but the in the second half, the defense seemingly disappeared as did the offense.
Clemson, which came in to last week's game as the 108th ranked offense in the nation was able to gut the Miami defense for 371 yards of total offense, most of which came in the second half as the Tigers came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit.
The Canes have to also put together a full game on the offensive side of the ball and it starts up front with a depleted offensive line that has truly felt the loss of Eric Winston (out for the season) and Tyler McMeans.
After rushing the ball real well in the first half against Clemson, the line was simply unable to open holes for Frank Gore and Tyrone Moss. If they can't do that against Virginia, it could make for a long afternoon.
"We have to keep believing in ourselves," quarterback Brock Berlin said. "Our backs are against the wall. It has to start in Virginia."
Berlin for one knows what it's like to fight back from adversity.
After losing back-to-back games last year to Virginia Tech and Tennessee, Berlin was benched in favor of Derrick Crudup for the Syracuse game. But one week later he earned the starting job back and led the Canes to three straight wins to close the season, including an Orange Bowl win over Florida State.
"You look back at how you went through that and overcame some obstacles," Berlin said. "We are going to get out there and fight."
Another area the team must hit on is some of the deep passes it missed against Clemson's ultra-fast cornerbacks.
"Those were the fastest corners we had faced this year," Berlin said. "But we have to hit those deep passes. I have to give my receivers a chance to make a play."
If confidence is a problem for anyone on the team, they need look no further than Berlin who has been playing some of the best football of his career over the past five games. But more than anything, the team has to take heed and realize there is still plenty to play for, including an ACC championship, a BCS bowl and the respect of the nation.
"I feel comfortable in our offense," Berlin said. "I have to play better and I feel we would have won those games if I had played better. We have to be focused because we are in a good position to win the ACC and I am very confident in our team that we will."
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