MORGANTOWN - When final exams are over this week and coaches return from recruiting, West Virginia's football team can dive head first into preparation for Clemson and the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl.Needless to say, the Mountaineers will prepare for a Tigers team that began the season 8-0 and ended it with a 38-10 rout of Sugar Bowl-bound Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game.When it comes time to actually play the game, though, WVU would probably prefer to face the Clemson bunch that in between that fast start and stunning finish went 1-3.Dana Holgorsen was asked about the up and down nature of the Tigers last week and didn't flinch."Well, they didn't look too bad in their last game,'' the West Virginia coach said. "And they played a pretty good team.''Indeed, No. 14 Clemson (10-3) played some good teams throughout the season and beat most of them. During that 8-0 start, the Tigers faced ranked teams three straight weeks at one point and beat then-No. 21 Auburn, 38-24; then-No. 11 Florida State, 35-30; and then-No. 11 Virginia Tech, 23-3.Toss in three more wins the next three weeks over Boston College, Maryland and North Carolina and the Tigers were riding high, climbing to No. 6 in the Associated Press poll and entering the national championship discussion.But then came the skid. Road losses to Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and South Carolina - by a combined score of 102-43 - were interrupted only by last-play, 31-28 home win over a so-so Wake Forest team.The difference, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, was easy to pinpoint.
"The biggest thing for us was the first eight games of the year we had six total turnovers and were one of the least penalized teams in the country. And when you're talented [combined with few turnovers and penalties] you're going to give yourself a really good chance to win,'' Swinney said. "And then the last four games of our season we had 12 turnovers and we lost three of those games. So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.''Through those first eight games, Clemson ranked 12th in the country in turnover margin and finished ranked No. 53. The penalty issue isn't so easily defined by statistics - Clemson finished the season ranked No. 10 in fewest per game - but the ones the Tigers incurred were costly and ill-timed."And that affects everything,'' Swinney said of the mistakes. "That affects your confidence and then you try to do too much, it affects momentum. And then [against Virginia Tech] we created three turnovers and did not have any. That's been the formula for us all year when we've been successful.''Even in the win over Wake Forest, Clemson had to overcome a three-turnover deficit. In the three losses the difference was minus-seven. That's a minus-10 turnover ratio in those four games. In the other nine games Clemson's ratio was plus-12.As for the reason for the difference in turnovers and penalties, Swinney pointed to youth. Clemson played 29 true or redshirt freshmen this season, tied with Indiana for most in the nation. When that group started 8-0 and got all of that acclaim, it was difficult to handle."I didn't think we handled success very well,'' Swinney said. "Part of that is just youth on your football team. Some of these guys hadn't been in that situation. You can tell them and tell them, but sometimes you just have to learn from experience.''
Holgorsen, meanwhile, just chalks up Clemson's brief struggles to the nature of the beast. The Tigers weren't the only team that had down moments this season. Include West Virginia among that bunch."They were real hot and won some close games. That's hard to maintain, as we saw this year not only with them, but with a whole bunch of other teams,'' Holgorsen said. "They hit a two- or three- game skid there, but because they're well-coached and have players that like to win, they were able to win the game at the end that counted."It's part of what college football is all about. For them to be able to regroup, kind of like we regrouped a month ago, is a tribute to the coaches and players.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org