Clemson Looks Past Orange Bowl to Future

1:10 PM, Jan 4, 2012   |    comments
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Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins runs after catching a Tajh Boyd pass in the ACC Championship on Dec. 3, 2011. (US Presswire)

Fort Lauderdale, FL (USA TODAY, Greenville News) -- Rather than the end, many in the Clemson football program envision this season and this Discover Orange Bowl game Wednesday with West Virginia as a launching pad.

Instead of a nice junket and a pat on the back for working so hard, Clemson players want an 11th victory, not only because it hasn't been done in a generation but also because of its potential to enhance the program's stature and perhaps set up a bigger season in 2012.

"I want the best for the seniors so they can leave in the right way," said junior linebacker Corico Hawkins. "To be right here and have a chance to win 11 games, everybody wants it so we can cap this thing off in a right way."

ACC champion Clemson has been formidable - even dominant, as Virginia Tech can attest - but WVU bites back. At times the No. 22 Mountaineers have struggled to close games, their last four games decided by no more than three points.

Coach Dana Holgorsen brought his version of the fast-break, spread offense from Oklahoma State where he was offensive coordinator after tutoring at Texas Tech and Houston, two other places where they're also known to fling around the pigskin.

The Mountaineers' trigger is Geno Smith, a South Floridian who signed after Tajh Boyd dropped his commitment and eventually chose Clemson.

"They throw the ball for a million yards, 40 something times a game, and he's completing 65% of his passes," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "I mean, we've got to be able to affect the quarterback, and the way you do that, one way is through coverage.

"You've got to be really disciplined. People got to be where they're supposed to be. You've got to change it up. If you just do one thing, they're going to lock in on you pretty quick. They've got answers."

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele always has a wrinkle or two, but the essentials of the Clemson defense have become relatively standard this season - inside pressure by Brandon Thompson, outside from Andre Branch, stuff the run with Hawkins and man coverage on the corners with Coty Sensabaugh on the best receiver.

The rest depends on down, distance and personnel.

"He does a great job of getting the ball caught and getting his eyes on his reads and then getting the ball out very quick, and then he's very accurate with his throws," said Steele about Smith.

"He has the ability to scramble. I've known him since he was in high school, so I know what he can do with his legs.

"He's going to look to throw it first. And as soon as I say that, then he'll scramble for 80 yards Wednesday night."

It's unlikely but not impossible after what South Carolina quarterback Conner Shaw did to Clemson with his feet. Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey have each caught passes from Smith for 1,000 yards this season. One crimp in the WVU plan was losing leading rusher Dustin Garrison to a knee injury during practice here, but backup Shawne Alston scored 10 touchdowns, second only to Bailey's 11.

Hawkins sees the big-picture value for the 2012 season, but he's not immune to the emotion that will grip them all when Branch and Price and Thompson and Sensabaugh and the other seniors are gone.

"As a team leader, it would be big for us going into the offseason for training and spring ball," he said. "For the young players, they'll know that this is the standard, these are the expectations for this program, and that this is what Clemson football's all about."

"There's definitely a lot of emotion," said Branch, the senior defense end with seemingly boundless energy. "I'm living it to the fullest right now.

"The best way to end it would be with a win."

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