It?s a little ironic that Clemson traveled to Durham the week of Halloween.
There?s no doubt they made the trip feeling as if they needed to exorcize some demons. Their last trip in 2004 resulted in a 16-13 loss, which just happens to be the Blue Devils? last conference win. Those same demons have haunted them in the past when playing a game like this. That tendency to play down to their opponents has been an unwanted characteristic all would like to shed.
And for at least the first quarter or so, it looked like Clemson was going to be the beneficiary of a trick rather than a treat. For many, it looked like a carbon copy of the game three years ago. It was almost as if the team was cursed.
But that?s where the similarities stopped.
The Tigers took control by scoring 16 points in a 39-second span near the end of the half to take a 26-7 lead and they never looked back. And even though it was not the path to victory anyone would have chosen to start the day, it was the perfect cure for a team looking to shake a monkey off its back.
The offense, which has looked so good in recent weeks, appeared as if they were trying not to move the ball more than they appeared to be struggling to move it. Punter Jimmy Maners attempted as many punts (three) in the Tigers? first five drives as he had in the last two games combined.
Chris McDuffie missed the game after being hurt in the first drive against Maryland. His absence seemed to be a much bigger factor this week than against the Terps. The Blue Devils racked up three sacks and applied good pressure on a number of occasions, mostly because of missed assignments.
Barry Humphries had another good game as a guard and Brandon Pilgrim played well for the most part, but Bobby Hutchinson continued to struggle when rotating in. He just doesn?t seem to be physical enough and he allowed pressure at least three times because he did not do a good job of picking up blitzers.
McDuffie needs to heal quickly if the offense is going to make things happen the next three weeks because it looks like he and Humphries are the best combination Clemson has. That would allow Pilgrim to give each a rest without having to use Hutchinson.
Barry Richardson has finally kicked that big transmission of his into high gear and was voted the ACC Linemen of the Week for the second consecutive time. He?s moving his feet and playing within his frame better than he has since his sophomore year. He, along with the rest of the line, is holding his blocks longer, which is creating more cuts for the backs.
After the loss of Jacoby Ford last week, the wide receiving corps received a boost with the return of Rendrick Taylor. He had four catches, three of which went for first downs, and blocked well. He also lined up as a fullback at least three times and even notched a carry for no gain.
His rush for no gain didn?t seem like a big deal but it does force future opponents to prepare for a new wrinkle. Clemson has used the same formation throughout the season to fake the dive to Davis and pitch it back to Spiller on a misdirection toss. Because of the carry, defenses must now prepare for the fullback as both a runner and receiver and they can?t key solely on the tailback.
Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham continued to catch and block really well. Grisham had one drop early on but made up for it with a great diving grab to set up Clemson?s second touchdown. Grisham was on the wrong end of a tremendous hit that knocked him out of the game with a concussion but you have to like his fearlessness.
James Davis and C.J. Spiller only had eight carries a piece but both players made the most of their attempts. Spiller averaged seven yards per carry and made some tremendous cuts. He?s still dancing on occasion but it appears he?s developed more patience and is seeing the field much better.
Davis racked up 118 yards on his eight carries, highlighted by a career long 70-yard touchdown run. He showed that extra step or two he developed in the offseason and made a great fake cut and cut near the end of his run.
I don?t think enough can be said about Davis at this point. He?s been a tremendous leader on and off the field and his maturation as a runner is becoming his greatest attribute. He has the unique ability to hit the hole hard while also having the patience to allow holes to develop. He?s great between the tackles but can now make defenses pay when he gets outside.
Cullen Harper didn?t put up huge numbers and even missed a few throws he normally makes, but it was still a solid performance for the guy who has quietly become one of the biggest surprises in the conference.
He held onto the ball a little longer than he should have at times and even forced a throw (his second TD) that he shouldn?t have made, but the flip side of that is he has that knack of not getting rattled when under pressure or nothing?s there. His composure is the biggest reason why he has 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Tommy Bowden has to be praying he wins the coin toss in the next three games. If he does, he can defer and force his opponent to take the ball to start the game. At least that will allow his defense to purge their system of bad plays early.
For the third straight week, Clemson?s opponent took the ball on their first drive and marched down the field seemingly at will for a score, only to be shut down for much of the remainder of the game.
It?s hard to explain why the defense has been so sluggish on their first series but it?s hard to argue with the results.
Clemson held Duke to under 200 yards of total offense and also picked up their second safety of the season on a sack. Considering Rashaad Jackson didn?t dress, Phillip Merling played sparingly with a sprained ankle, Jamie Cumbie moved inside from end, and four true freshmen manned positions along the front four at different times, it was a more dominating performance than it appeared to be.
Miguel Chavis, Rennie Moore, Jarvis Jenkins, and Courtnei Brown were the true freshmen that played up front. Some of their action came late in the game but they all had a relevant number of snaps when the game was still within reach for the Blue Devils.
Chavis is extremely undersized right now for a tackle but he is extremely athletic and surprisingly powerful. He makes up for his lack of size by playing at full throttle on every play. He has a good first step and uses his hands well.
Even though he plays end, Moore looks like more of a tackle than Chavis at this point. He has a bigger frame and isn?t as explosive off the ball but he does have a lot of upside potential. It looks like he?ll take off the occasional play and will benefit tremendously from the offseason workouts and spring practice.
If any changes are made along the front before next season, don?t be surprised to see Chavis and Moore switch positions. I think Moore has the frame to put on enough weight to get in the 290-300 lb. range while Chavis may struggle with that aspect because he?s already developed much more muscle.
In many ways, Brown looks like a young Gaines Adams. That?s not to say he?s going to be a superstar but he does have that tall, somewhat muscular frame and good quickness that Adams flashed in his early years.
Courtney Vincent had another solid game. He has performed well against the run and as a blitzer most of the year and did much of the same Saturday. He has also become the emotional leader of the defense and could be seen doing all he could to get his guys fired up on the field and on the sideline.
Michael Hamlin followed up last week?s performance, which Bowden called the best of his career, with another notable showing. He made a fantastic recovery and break on his interception, which initially looked like it would be a huge gain for the Blue Devils. He also had another good game in run support.
He has the instincts that allow him to make great reads on the run and always end up around the ball. Unfortunately, there appears to be a huge drop off behind him and Chris Clemmons. Both were still in there very late in the game.
Crezdon Butler made an awful play on a ball that allowed Duke to pick up 40 yards to the Clemson 5-yard line. It appeared that Butler severely misjudged the ball because he stopped running and the balled sailed about three yards over his head.
Maybe he lost the ball in the sun when he looked back or maybe he simply made a bad judgment call. Whatever the reason, he?s too good of a player to look that bad. The same type of mistake over the next three weeks will be much more costly.
It was the best special teams performance Clemson has had in quite some time.
Mark Buchholz made his lone attempt from 39 yards and did an excellent job of place a majority of his kickoffs, all of which had pretty good hang time.
He still had a few that were a little to close to the middle of the field. If you?re not going to kick it deep into the end zone, the best thing to do is place it as deep as possible and as close to the sidelines as you can get it.
His coverage unit did a much better job of getting off blocks while staying in their lanes. They also did a good job of giving up their body in order to take out multiple blockers, which frees up lanes for other defenders. Duke never started past the 28-yard line and was stopped inside the 20-yard line twice.
Jimmy Maners had a poor punt on his first attempt but ended the day with a 40.2 yard average on five attempts. He had two punts downed inside the 20-yard line, one of which was a 48-yarder that was downed at the 2.
C.J. Spiller had an electrifying 84-yard return for a touchdown on the free kick following the safety. He benefited from some good blocks up the middle then popped it to the outside and used his speed from there. DeAndre McDaniel had a big knockdown block that ultimately freed Spiller to hit the sideline.
I?ve always said special teams is more effort than anything and that return was a good example. McDaniel made an initial block, nailed the big one that freed the outside, then continued down the field looking to make a third instead of celebrating his big hit like so many guys tend to do. There were at least four other Clemson players near Spiller as he crossed the goal line.
Games like this aren?t fun for anyone having to covering it because there?s not much to say. Clemson was supposed to win big and they did. There were no amazing individual performances or record breaking numbers. It was just a ho-hum win that was the culmination of a solid team effort in all phases of the game.
The biggest news of the day came later that night when the Tigers got the help they needed in the race for a division title when FSU upset Boston College.
Clemson is now in control of their destiny. Win the next two games and they?ll be in Jacksonville the first Saturday in December. It?s a great situation to be in, but it?s also a one that has led to big letdowns in the past.
If someone would have said just three years ago that a Clemson/Wake Forest matchup the first weekend in November would be a sellout that could ultimately decide the division champ, most would have laughed uncontrollably.
But that?s the reality both teams face, and one that is indicative of just how crazy the world of college football has become over the last few years.
This will be the biggest test in a long time. The team needs to have the focus and drive they?ve displayed during some of their bigger victories, most of which have come with their backs against the wall. Leadership and execution will be huge.
They?ve said all year all they want is a shot to play for the ACC championship. Now that they have that shot, it will be interesting to see how they perform.