CLEMSON— The coaching staff issued a challenge to the Clemson Tigers last week following the loss to Syracuse and the open date.
The challenge was to not let the one loss define the 2017 team or the season. Last Saturday, the Tigers responded to that challenge with a 24-10 victory over Georgia Tech — signaling that Clemson had its confidence back.
"(The win over Georgia Tech) was very important. Coach challenged us and we accepted it because all great teams, it's about how they respond,” quarterback Kelly Bryant said. “So we felt we responded in a good way. We didn't want to let that moment define us as a team because we knew exactly what type of team we had in that room - -on both sides of the ball and special teams. It was good to get that under our belt and get our confidence back where it needed to be."
Heading into last week’s game against the Yellow Jackets, Bryant made a point to mention that the Tigers had been focused on getting back to playing the game fast and with tempo — something that was missing.
Last season, the Tigers averaged 82.9 plays per game and this year that number has fallen nearly six plays to 76.8. While those six plays may not seem to be a big deal, the fact is that the Tigers have been held to less than 70 plays three times this season, including a season-low 57 plays, and the fewest total plays since 2014.
"I feel like we came out real fast. The tempo that the coaches have been trying to drive, put an emphasis on the past two weeks following the game with Syracuse,” Bryant said. “I feel like the tempo was good, where it needed to be, always could be better but that's something we're going to continue to do the rest of the season."
The Tigers will take their new-found tempo to Raleigh this weekend as they travel to N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium in a showdown that could decide the Atlantic Division of the ACC.
With a win Saturday, the Tigers would be in a position to clinch the division title the following week at home against Florida State. A loss on Saturday would effectively end the Clemson hopes of clinching a spot in their third consecutive ACC Championship game and eliminate them from any hopes of a return trip to the College Football Playoff.
With so much on the line, Bryant and the rest of the Tigers are trying to make this week business as usual.
"Like Coach Swinney always says, 'It's a one-game season.' We just try to get to one-and-0 this week,” Bryant said. “A lot of emphasis is going to be on this game because a lot of media are going to try to hype the game up with us being a divisional rivalry and a lot riding on it. But we're just going to treat it like any other game and try to prepare the same way and try to not do anything out of the ordinary.
"It's hard because we're all we got in that environment, hostile environment, everybody's against us. So we're going to have to bring our own energy on the sidelines and on the field as well when we feel like we got our backs against the wall and everybody against us."
The one thing that the Tigers have in their favor that many teams do not is the opportunity to play against one of the best defenses in college football each and every day in practice.
While going up against the likes of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell daily in practice is sure to make the games a little easier, this week will be the Tigers’ greatest challenge of the season as they face a Wolfpack defensive line that has been unyielding.
"The defense that we go up against in practice is one of the best defenses that we'll see,” Bryant said. “It also helps on Saturdays and even throughout the week when we're doing that competitive good-on-good, it just makes the games a little easier. But like I said, that N.C. State defense is good as well. It's going to be a challenge. …
"Those guys are talented. They've got a good defensive unit. Guys are well coached, they play really hard, it's going to be a challenge just like every week is. But if we try not to lose to Clemson, we'll be all right."