Clemson Perseveres in “Tiger Bowl”
By Matthew Osborne
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Inspired by a former boxing great, Clemson started the 2012 season with a huge victory on Saturday night.
In a game that was close from the opening kickoff, No. 14 Clemson defeated Auburn 26-19 in front of a record crowd at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic on Saturday night.
The ACC Tigers actually trailed Auburn 19-16 with 12:50 remaining in the fourth quarter, but Dabo Swinney’s troops made the key plays down the stretch, enabling the ACC to escape Atlanta with at least one victory this weekend.
While the win provides Clemson with obvious reason for celebration, the circumstances surrounding the contest make the win even sweeter for the folks back in Death Valley.
Clemson struggled over the second half of the season in 2011, dropping four of their final six contests after an 8-0 start, including a 70-33 defeat at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. The defense was particularly putrid down the stretch last fall, giving up nearly 40 points per game in their last eight matchups.
With the disappointing conclusion to last season still weighing heavy on their minds, Clemson players were recently struck with the news that they would have to open the 2012 season without the services of their best player: Sammy Watkins.
The combination of last season’s poor finish and the suspension of arguably the premiere receiver in college football did little to rattle Clemson’s offense mentally, however, as the ACC Tigers racked up 528 yards of total offense in the absence of their primary weapon out wide.
Forced to temporarily step into the role of No. 1 wide receiver, DeAndre “Nuke” Hopkins put on a dazzling display in the Georgia Dome, setting a new Clemson record with 13 receptions. His acrobatic touchdown catch with 9:17 remaining ultimately proved to be the winning score, as well.
While Hopkins turned in an exceptional performance on the perimeter, running back Andre Ellington was undoubtedly the MVP of the game for Clemson.
Recently selected to the preseason All-ACC team, Ellington did not disappoint on Saturday night, finishing the game with 231 yards rushing on a workmanlike 26 carries. His 231 rushing yards set a new Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic record.
Although it was not one of his best games statistically, quarterback Tajh Boyd also played a significant role in Clemson’s triumph. Often forced to scramble by an aggressive Auburn defensive front, Boyd used both his arm and his feet to pick up numerous key third down conversions late in the contest.
“There was a huge third down conversion on that drive,” said Swinney, remarking on Clemson’s final offensive possession. “Tajh Boyd made a great lay with his legs. Great quarterbacks find ways to lead their teams to victory, and that’s what he did.”
The one common theme on the night for the ACC Tigers seemed to be overcoming adversity.
Whether it was forgetting about last year’s season ending debacle, playing without their best player, or overcoming individual circumstances which arose during the game, Clemson persevered through the trying times Saturday night.
It appears that Clemson’s winning performance very well may have been inspired by one of the greatest winners in sports history.
“That’s what champions do – learn how to respond,” said Swinney. “Evander Holyfield talked to our team last night. He’s the only five-time champion ever, and he got beat 11 times. But he’d come back strong each time.”
It is important not to overstate the importance of a singular win.
This victory, however, was about more than the tangible result – it was about the manner in which it was achieved.
Clemson still has a long and arduous path on what it hopes will be a return trip to a BCS bowl game, but Tiger fans certainly have to be inspired by what they saw out of their team in Atlanta.