The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 16, 2011

Clemson focused on Orange Bowl

By Pete Iacobelli
AP Sports Writer

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson center Dalton Freeman says his focus is squarely on the 14th-ranked Tigers’ Orange Bowl matchup against No. 23 West Virginia next month.

That gets tested each day Freeman walks around a campus crazy about the team’s first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 20 years.

Freeman and his teammates can’t go anywhere these days without a fan, classmate, teacher or administrator smiling about Clemson’s 38-10 victory over Virginia Tech in the ACC title game nearly two weeks ago.

“It’s unbelievable,” Freeman said Thursday night. “This is what we came here for and to finally get the respect we worked for is a lot of fun.”

That’s evident throughout the small college town. Sign boards outside shops congratulate the team on its victory over Virginia Tech.

One sports apparel shop put up the words, “Orange Bowl Bound. Tweet That,” a reference to coach Dabo Swinney’s rant about Clemson’s place after losing to South Carolina.

It’s just as nuts for players such as Freeman getting congratulations.

“People come up and give me oranges,” Freeman said with a chuckle.

Swinney is glad his guys and the fans have a chance to celebrate. But he said this week it was time to get the players’ minds back on work and No. 23 West Virginia, the Tigers opponent in the BCS matchup.

Clemson will work out through the middle of next week before breaking for the holidays and reconvening in South Florida the week after Christmas.

Freeman said it wasn’t hard getting back to the practice field, no matter how good the Tigers still feel after the ACC championship.

“I can speak for myself and a lot of the guys, we were ready to get back to work,” Freeman said. “As well as we played (against Virginia Tech) there are still things we can correct.”

The Tigers were the surprise of college football the first two months as they defeated national champion Auburn, then last year’s ACC Atlantic Division champion and league winners in Florida State and Virginia Tech in successive weeks on the way to 8-0 start.

Clemson was pushed forward by its high-powered offense run by first-year coordinator Chad Morris, nearly mistake-free play by quarterback Tajh Boyd and the emergence of freshman receiver Sammy Watkins.

Things bogged down, though, in November as the Tigers lost three of four and were solid underdogs in the rematch against the Hokies. But the old Tigers showed themselves again, Boyd passing for three touchdowns and running for a fourth and the defense shutting down Virginia Tech’s ACC player of the year in tailback David Wilson.

Happy Clemson fans tossed oranges on the field at Bank of America Stadium as the final minutes ticked down, a scene that was repeated outside Death Valley by a few thousand who turned out to welcome back the champs.

“It was an incredible scene,” Boyd said.

And one that’s hard to forget during blocking drills and conditioning runs.

Tight end Dwayne Allen, a first-team AP All-American this week, said he saw the fire on the practice field that the players weren’t ready to stop their success.

It’s already Clemson’s first trip to the Orange Bowl since the 1981 team clinched its 12-0, national championship season with a 22-15 victory over Nebraska. A win over West Virginia will give the Tigers their most wins since that landmark squad 30 years ago.

“There’s so much excitement going into the Orange Bowl,” Allen said. “This is what we worked for all year.”

Allen is considered one of the top tight end prospects for next spring’s NFL draft, but the junior said he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll give up his senior year for the pros.

Almost everyone else on Clemson’s record-setting offense will be back including Morris, a coordinator who was in demand since the season ended. Morris agreed to a revamped, six-year deal that pays him about $1.3 million a year — raise of nearly $1 million from the $450,000 he made this season.

“I was glad to see him come back,” Boyd said. “That was important.”

Just as important for the Tigers will be maintaining the edge they developed in the week before the ACC championship game. Clemson was a club teetering after falling 34-13 to rival South Carolina, a game some Tiger die-hards would tell you was even more important than a league crown. 

Freeman said the players came together that week and performed as well as they had all season, something he expects to happen in bowl game preparations, too, no matter how frequently the team is praised.

Plus, Freeman’s got no Vitamin C worries with all the oranges he’s received the past two weeks.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of those oranges,” he said.