CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - After a 1-3 start and a week off, what course of action do you take if you're Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden?
The most positive one you can find.
"We've kind of talked about starting new," he said. "We've had four games and we've had an open date. Now, we have seven games left. We're kind of approaching it like this is game one of a seven game season."
The off week coming when it did provided Bowden the perfect opportunity to take such an approach. He took the extra time to put the Tigers through three brutal, physical practices during the off week, hoping to shore up areas where the team has broken down fundamentally.
Now, needing five wins in its final seven games just to qualify for a bowl, Bowden takes his team on the road to No. 10 Virginia tonight for a game televised nationally by ESPN. Clemson is 0-5 in ESPN Thursday night games, 0-4 under Bowden.
But Bowden isn't focusing on the past, distant or recent. Instead, he's trying to make sure his team learns from previous mistakes and turns those lessons into a much-needed victory tonight.
"With the open date we've had a chance to look at our weaknesses over four games, so we've looked at that and hopefully we can correct some things and see what happens in this 'new season'," he said. "We'll find out (tonight) if this off week came at a good time for us. Many things we have tried to improve on as far as tackling, drops on offense, and turning the ball over.
"The game will be a true indication of whether those areas have been improved on. They have all been addressed in practice and talked about in meetings but we won't know until (tonight)."
Much of Clemson's game plan focuses on the anticipated toughness the Cavs will display on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Even with star defensive end Chris Canty gone for the season, Virginia's front seven has been hyped all season as one of the best in the ACC.
Offensively, quarterback Marques Hagans has been deadly efficient (76 percent completion percentage) through four games, operating with a strong running attack behind a big, physical offensive line. Hagans also is a threat to run from the quarterback spot, something which has troubled Clemson's defense this season.
But more than anything else, Bowden's concern is simply improving the play of his own team. Make tackles. Cut down on the dropped passes (12 in the last three games) and finish blocks.
Most importantly, get quarterback Charlie Whitehurst over the fact that he's committed nine turnovers in the past two games. Get him to relax and play.
"There has been a lot written about him and said about him, so hopefully the off week has been good for him," Bowden said of Whitehurst. "He's in such a high profile position, it's been good for him so far. He's been playing football for a long time and he needs to start enjoying it again.
"It's time he and I both go out and have some fun."
Keys to the Victory
1. Stop The Run
Virginia likes to run Wali Lundy and Alvis Pearman behind a big, physical offensive line. It's scheme is more of a pro-style running game, meaning Tiger defenders won't have to worry about stopping much in the way of the option. Quarterback Marques Hagans' mobility adds a wrinkle to the Cavs' attack, and Al Groh is no stranger to the occasional trick play. But for the most part, this battle will be decided in the trenches, rather than outside the tackles. Clemson's defensive line needs a big effort in this one.
2. Stop The Turnovers...Again
As promised, this item stays in this segment until the Tigers win the battle of turnovers vs. an opponent. Take away two key first half miscues by quarterback Charlie Whitehurst in Clemson's last game against Florida State and the Tigers might have led that game by 14 or more points at the break, rather than trailing 17-14. Games can turn on as little as 2-3 plays, and the Tigers need to finally be on the positive side of that turn.
3. Do Some New Thursday Night Voodoo
Clemson is 0-5 in ESPN Thursday night games, 0-4 under Tommy Bowden. If fact, Clemson hasn't won a regular season game on Thursday since Nov. 1963, a game which was moved back because of the Kennedy assassination. Needless to say, it's time for a change of luck. Maybe instead of the traditional visiting team entrance, the Tigers can wind their way through the Scott Stadium pergolas in hopes of exorcising the demons.
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger and TigerNet. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.