CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) -- It was hard to tell who was happier at
Death Valley -- the Clemson defenders who came up with 11 sacks or
the Tiger runners who hit for three of the four rushing touchdowns.
Or it might have been Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who after a
month of defeats that took his team out of the Atlantic Coast
Conference title race, was glad for any kind of victory.
"It's been a long time since we've had that taste," he said.
Whether the 35-6 victory over Utah State can give the struggling
Tigers (2-4) the edge to turn around the season is another matter.
"I think it can," said defensive lineman Eric Coleman, part of
Clemson's sack attack. "This heals a little. But it doesn't take
away everything that happened."
Clemson entered the year in the top 25, a solid pick to contend
with Miami and Florida State in the expanded ACC. But consecutive
losses to Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Florida State and Virginia left
the Tigers reeling and far out of the national picture.
Bowden was sure his team had the talent to succeed. Its psyche,
though, was badly in need of repair. Enter the Aggies (2-5), a Sun
Belt Conference opponent going through almost as awful a stretch as
Clemson with its fourth loss in five games.
After some first-half errors, the team got rolling.
Charles Bennett, Trey Tate and Gaines Adams each had two of the
team's 11 sacks, a high for Bowden's six seasons and one shy of the
school record set in 1996. The starting front four had not recorded
a sack before Saturday.
"It wasn't much spoken," defensive end Maurice Fountain said
of the lack of sacks. "But you could see the focus all week" on
getting pressure on the quarterback.
Clemson's defense kept Utah State to minus-20 yards rushing.
Starting quarterback Travis Cox was 12 of 23 for 90 yards for the
Aggies. Utah State's best chance to put a scare into the Tigers
ended when Jamaal Fudge intercepted a halfback pass near the goal
line in the first quarter.
Utah State coach Mick Dennehy thought the trick might work with
the way Clemson's defense was attacking. "It would've been nice to
get the ball in the end zone first," he said.
Instead, the Tigers took control on the ground. Reggie
Merriweather had two of Clemson's four rushing touchdowns. The
Tigers had just three TDs on the ground in its first five games.
Merriweather had 84 yards, Duane Coleman added 82 and the Tigers
ended with 200 yards -- more than their passing total of 179. It was
the first time in 15 games, Clemson had gained more yards rushing
than through the air.
The Tigers went into halftime up 7-0 in front of a near full
house of 77,500 that was eager to cheer a blowout. Bowden looked
for signs of his defenders complaining about the lack of offense.
He heard none. Instead, Bowden said the defense came out even
harder after the break and gave Clemson the time to get going. "I
was really pleased with the way they played," he said.
One of the biggest problems Bowden talked about this week was
the offense not controlling the ball enough, leading to a tired
defense trying to hold opponents. The four touchdowns -- and the way
the Tigers ground them out -- were a welcome sight for the club.
"It helps the defense out tremendously," Duane Coleman said.
"Let's just hope this carries over."
Confidence-wise, it's sure to, said quarterback Charlie
Whitehurst, who completed 15 of his 23 throws for 179 yards and two
interceptions. "It's a lot more fun to work, to practice. (A win)
can do a lot for you," he said.
That's what happened a year ago. An up-and-down Clemson finally
came together at the end of the season with a four-game run for the
ages. It started with a win over nationally ranked Florida State
and continued all the way through to the Peach Bowl and a rousing
victory over Tennessee.
No one in Clemson's relieved locker room was predicting such
great things this time.
"All it takes is one win," said Coleman, the tailback. "One
win at a time, and before you know it you're on a streak."