SCOTTSDALE – Clemson’s return to Arizona comes with bad memories of its last visit a little over 11 months ago.
The Tigers, who were ranked No. 1 at the time, lost in the College Football Playoff National Championship game to second-ranked Alabama at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 11.
The game turned on an onside kick early in the fourth quarter that Alabama recovered after the Crimson Tide had tied it, 24-24, on a 33-yard Adam Griffith field goal. Two plays later Alabama scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass and never trailed again, ultimately going on to a 45-40 victory.
“There were like two to three plays in the game that if we could’ve had back, I feel like we could have won,” Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said. “It left us with a bad taste in our mouth.”
That championship loss, coupled with a short stay in Phoenix that didn’t give them much opportunity to explore the city, didn’t leave the best impression of Arizona on the Tigers.
This year, with six nights in Arizona before Saturday’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, players said they were excited to have a chance to see more of the Valley while remaining focused on the biggest reason for their trip — winning the college football semifinal against Ohio State and advancing to the championship game for the second straight year. There, the Tigers would get either a rematch with No. 1 Alabama or take on No. 4 Washington at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
“Clemson’s beautiful, but when you come out here, it’s different, like, a whole other world,” said cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, a South Carolina native. “Everybody’s houses look like clay. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Running back Wayne Gallman said he loves this part of the bowl experience.
“We get to come see places that we’ve never seen,” said Gallman, who will be playing in his fourth bowl game since redshirting in 2013. And the backdrop of the team’s practice field at Scottsdale Community College is not lost on him. “We’re practicing with mountains on the horizon.”
It’s not all about the “culture shock,” though, a phrase Watkins used to describe Arizona on Tuesday. The Tigers still have a game to play.
Co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said that if Clemson is to win, it will need an increase in focus compared to last year’s playoff. He mentioned a demonstration that head coach Dabo Swinney made for the team during the season.
Swinney asked the players a question, to which the they raised their hands. After, he asked another question. Hands went higher.
“Why didn’t you raise your hand as high as you could the first time?” Dabo asked, according to Elliott. “It’s just that little extra, that 110 percent, that was the difference in the outcome last year.”
Elliot said that five plays stick out in his mind from that game. He mentioned two specifically, calling them “little plays.” One, the offense didn’t jump on a fumbled ball. The other was when quarterback Deshaun Watson overthrew an open receiver that Elliott said Watson would normally “hit 100 times.”
Despite the need for focus, the team has more down time. On Wednesday, Clemson teamed up with the Special Olympics and played video games, soccer, football and Cornhole with about 50 children. During the rest of their down time, players will explore the Valley.
Tight end Jordan Leggett mentioned a desire to go to Top Golf, a popular golf complex in Scottsdale just up the road from where the team is practicing.
Tankersley has a little more adventurous idea about exploring the desert.
“I want to ride four-wheelers,” he said. “I just don’t know where to find them.”
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