by: Alex Welch (@alex__welch)
ATLANTA -- The Clemson Tigers ended 2011 with a 70-33 blowout loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl after losing three of their last five regular season games. As they defeated the Auburn Tigers 26-19 at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in Atlanta, Ga., it was clear last year's woes were no longer an issue.
Head coach Dabo Swinney said he laughs when people bring up that Orange Bowl defeat. "We lost four games last year, and we're not happy about any of them," said Swinney in his postgame press conference.
Even though Clemson's January loss is in the past, Swinney wanted to bring in a speaker to talk to the team about bouncing back.
Clemson had a special guest on Friday--the eve of their season opener. Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield spoke to the Tigers about how to handle defeat. As Swinney told it, there's no better way to learn about losing than from someone who has overcome failure so many times in the past.
"He's the only five-time champion ever, and he got beat 11 times. But he'd come back strong each time," Swinney said. "The lesson is you don't worry about what others say or think. You have a great attitude, learn how to be honest with yourself and go get better."
Clemson came back strong on Saturday night, as the team racked up a total of 528 yards on its way to the first victory of 2012.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 24 of 34 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown while rushing for an extra 88 yards on the night. Boyd evaded pressure, made big plays when the team needed them and single-handedly kept Clemson in the game on several occasions against Auburn. He wasn't alone, though, in his dominant campaign.
Wide receiver DeAndre "Nuke" Hopkins exploded for a Clemson single-game record of 13 catches, totaling 119 yards and one outstanding touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone in the fourth quarter. He exceeded everyone's expectations in starting as the No. 1 receiver with Sammy Watkins out on suspension.
"A career-record 13 catches," said Swinney on Hopkins' night, "I know there's no bigger fan and nobody celebrating more than Sammy Watkins back in Clemson. Everybody talks about Sammy, nobody ever talks about Nuke for whatever reason. Maybe they'll play-by-play announcers learn to say his name correctly."
Running back Andre Ellington did his best to steal the show as well, racking up a whopping 231 yards on 26 carries. Along with averaging a remarkable 8.9 yards per carry, Ellington broke a 68-yard run in the second quarter after managing to roll over a defender while being tackled, maintaing his balance and escaping for a huge burst away from the crowd of Auburn defenders.
Despite giving up 528 total yards to Clemson, Auburn stayed in the game all the way up until the final seconds. Running backs Tre Mason and Onterrio McCalleb combined to rush for 193 yards on 26 carries. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier threw for 194 yards on just 11 completions, and wide receiver Emory Blake caught four passes for 109 yards and one touchdown. But, in the end it just wasn't enough.
Clemson may be remembered for losing the 2011 Orange Bowl for a while, but one thing is certain: Swinney will not let what happened in the past affect what could be in the future.