CLEMSON — As Clemson’s games get bigger, coach Dabo Swinney’s approach stays the same.
The 10th-ranked Tigers (8-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) take on Maryland (4-5, 2-3) at Death Valley on Saturday, trying to keep their alive their fading chances at a second straight league title and an at-large BCS berth.
The contest is expected to be mismatch – Clemson is a four-touchdown favorite – but that hasn’t lessened Swinney’s focus. He said his team needs to keep up its record-setting performance on offense and continue to show improvement on defense, no matter what adversity the opponent may be facing.
“The mentality is exactly the same,” he said. “This is the biggest game of the year. That’s been our mentality all year, nothing changes. The formula is exactly the same. It’s technique and all-in commitment.”
Things have gone extremely well for the Tigers this year. They’ve won five straight by an average of 28 points a game, including three spots they’ve traditionally struggled in at Boston College (45-31), Wake Forest (42-13) and, last week, Duke (56-20).
Expect more of the same against the Terps, hit with a horrific string of season-ending injuries last year. Converted linebacker Shawn Petty will start his second straight game at quarterback after Maryland’s four scholarship passers were all hurt and lost for the year.
This week, Maryland announced its leading tackler in linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield tore an ACL and is also finished for the season.
Terrapins coach Randy Edsall said he and his team will make it through the problems because they’re a family and things will improve.
“Guys understand that there is going to be adversity that strikes during the season,” Edsall said. “Probably didn’t expect this much adversity to strike.”
Petty struggled in a 33-13 loss to Georgia Tech. He threw an interception, lost two fumbles and was sacked four times. Petty did throw a pair of TD passes to Maryland star freshman Stefon Diggs.
The Terps have lost three straight after opening 4-2. The team has been one of the ACC’s top defenses, second only to Florida State in yards given up and third overall in points allowed. They’ll need a strong effort to slow down a Clemson offense and quarterback in Tajh Boyd setting records at nearly every outing.
Boyd, a junior, has thrown for 1,696 yards and 16 touchdowns during the Tigers’ winning streak. He connected on five TD throws in each of the past two games, putting away Wake Forest and Duke before halftime.
“It’s one of those deals where I feel like as an offense we’re starting to hit on what we’re trying to control,” Boyd said. “Scoring on most of our drives that we have and capitalizing on any opportunities.”
Boyd’s not doing it alone.
Receiver Sammy Watkins set a single-game record two games ago with 202 yards receiving at Wake Forest. He broke the mark of 197 yards established three games earlier by DeAndre Hopkins.
Tailback Andre Ellington has 780 yards rushing, second in the ACC. He ran one play for 26 yards last week at Duke before tweaking a hamstring. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Ellington could’ve returned against the Blue Devils, but the coaches chose not to risk it while leading 42-17 at halftime.
Clemson finished with 718 yards of offense, second in school history behind the 756 yards gained against Wake Forest in the, 12-0, national championship season of 1981.
The Tigers won’t have the chance to duplicate their success of 31 years ago. A September loss at No. 8 Florida State will likely cost Clemson a shot winning its third ACC Atlantic Division crown in four seasons.
Boyd, though, says there’s plenty on the table for the Tigers to achieve. A victory Saturday would be a record-setting 12th straight at home, bettering a mark set twice before, the last time from 1989-1991.
Clemson can still finish with just one loss, which would be its fewest since it went 6-0-1 to win the ACC title in 1991. It can put up back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in reaching double-digit wins four straight times from 1987-1990.
Winning out – the Tigers follow with North Carolina State and rival South Carolina – would mean the program’s first 11-victory season since 1981.
Swinney says his players are ready to chase each and every one of those goals, no matter if the Tigers are edged out for titles.
“That’s why I’m proud of our guys because they have learned how to win,” Swinney said. “It’s a mindset.”