There was a point late in the season when it looked like Clemson would fall into the same pattern it had become famous for. The Tigers got off to a great start to the season, only to falter at the end.
This season, it was an especially good start. Clemson won its first eight games and climbed as high as fifth in the polls. Then, the Tigers hit that wall once again, and dropped three of their last four regular season games.
They had one more surprise in them, though, when they beat a favored Virginia Tech team by four touchdowns in the ACC Championship Game to earn themselves a trip to the Orange Bowl. Now, it seems as though this team really is different from those of years past.
For West Virginia, the blueprint on how to beat this team may have been laid out for them during that late-season slump. If you can get to and, more importantly, tackle quarterback Tajh Boyd, there's a good chance you'll be able to beat the Tigers.
"That's one thing that we've been focusing on this whole bowl season," said WVU defensive end Julian Miller, "just getting pressure on the quarterback, trying to get him a little bit flustered, and definitely being able to penetrate the o-line."
The first of those three losses came against Georgia Tech, and that was just a matter of being dominated by Georgia Tech's potent running game.
The next two losses, though, back-to-back defeats at the hands of North Carolina State and South Carolina, were a bit more telling. In those games, the offense gave up a combined 11 sacks. That's the same number of sacks the Tigers had given up in the eight games prior to the two-game losing streak.
In fact, in a game against FCS opponent Wofford that was much closer than it ever should have been, Clemson gave up four sacks, keeping the game close all the way to the end. In games in which they gave up four or more sacks, the Tigers were 1-2 with the lone win being that Wofford game. When they give up three or less, the Tigers were 9-1.
Again, if you can get to Boyd, you can create problems for Clemson.
"You look at a game like Pitt and the way we were able to get pressure on their quarterback," said Miller, "and you think of it going into this game. If we can get the same type of pressure, you can fluster and affect their offense majorly."
In that Pitt game, West Virginia found itself down 20-7, but the Mountaineers sacked quarterback Tino Sunseri nine times in Pitt's final 25 snaps, sealing the win. This is a pass rush that had a lot of hype coming into the year, and at times, lived up to it. For the Mountaineers it all starts with their senior defensive ends.
"Playing with Bruce (Irvin) from one end," said linebacker Najee Goode, "guys actually fall asleep on Julian sometimes, and that's the wrong thing to do because Julian's just about the same speed. It helps out to run different stunts and it helps out to make our job easier dropping back in coverage because the best coverage for us is a sack. If we can do that four, five, six times in the game, or how we did against Pitt- eight, nine, ten times a game- that just makes our job a little bit easier."
Sacking Tajh Boyd won't be as easy as sacking Tino Sunseri, though. Boyd has shown this year that he has the mobility to keep a play alive, and that getting to him doesn't necessarily mean you will sack him. If he's able to get the ball to his speedy receivers, the Mountaineers could find themselves in trouble.
"We've got to crowd around him," Miller said. "We've got to close the pocket in on him, allow for him not to be able to stretch the field and get to the outside, and make plays with his feet, as well as getting the ball to his receivers in open space. I think closing the pocket down and keeping him contained would be the biggest key for us."
Irvin, never lacking in confidence, thinks that the defense is up to the challenge. He expects to get to Boyd, and to create problems for the Clemson offense.
"We always expect that," he said. "We've been busting our butt this week in practice, and I'm a big believer in, if you practice well, it translates over into the game. I think our defensive line has been working hard this week and we're going to be able to get good pressure on him."
If he's right, and they do pressure Boyd on a consistent basis, West Virginia's chances of becoming Orange Bowl champs improve. If not, beating this Clemson team will become that much more difficult.