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No. 11 Clemson seeking better effort

No. 11 Clemson seeking better effort

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) No matter how often Clemson's Dabo Swinney replays last season's game against North Carolina State in his mind he can't figure out what went wrong.

One moment, the top-10 Tigers were locked in a tight game, up 3-0 on the Wolfpack early in the second quarter. The next, Clemson trailed 27-3 at the half and on the way to their second loss in three games.

``It was like, bam!'' Swinney remembered this week.

The 11th-ranked Tigers (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) finish league play against North Carolina State (6-4, 3-3) on Saturday and will try to rebound from the 37-13 loss that was part of a late swoon.

Clemson was one of college football's biggest surprises in 2011 after starting 8-0. But the Tigers dropped three of their final four regular-season games, including the stunning loss at Carter-Finley Stadium. It was a defeat that hasn't set well with the team in the time since.

``As an offense, we were pretty much embarrassed,'' Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd. ``It should be a fun game.''

Unless Clemson's high-speed attack stalls out against the Wolfpack as it did a year ago. Boyd threw two interceptions and the Tigers fumbled twice, one each by Boyd and ex-Clemson tailback Mike Bellamy. The result was a 27-point second quarter for North Carolina State, the team's best output in six years.

Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien knows what his team accomplished last season doesn't matter much, especially with the Tigers offense out-performing their record-setting showing from a year ago.

``They've got playmakers at every spot on offense, a really tough challenge for the defense to defend,'' O'Brien said.

Boyd leads the ACC in passing yards and total offense. Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins is second in the country with 14 touchdown catches. Tailback Andre Ellington is third in league rushing. And last year's freshman star Sammy Watkins is finally getting untracked after a slow first half of the season.

``It's definitely a huge game,'' North Carolina State cornerback Dontae Johnson said. ``We're just ready for the challenge.''

The Wolfpack could also be finding their stride. They became bowl eligible last week with a 37-6 victory over Wake Forest. Earlier this year, North Carolina State knocked No. 10 Florida State from the national championship chase with a 17-16 victory. That win was the latest in amazing stretch where the team has won seven of its last 11 games against opponents.

Toppling Clemson would be the Wolfpack's second win over a top-15 team, something they'd only pulled off in a season twice before. The setting, though, could have plenty to do with the outcome.

The Tigers set a school record last week in a 45-10 victory over Maryland with their 12th straight victory at Death Valley. The Wolfpack have had their struggles at Memorial Stadium, losing seven of the past eight played there.

Clemson's players have a chance at a share of their third ACC Atlantic Division title in four seasons. The Tigers are tied for the division lead with Florida State and would need an unlikely Seminoles' loss at Maryland on Saturday - coupled with beating North Carolina State - to claim the Atlantic's spot in the league title game next month.

Defeating the Wolfpack would also mean Clemson's first 10-win regular season since 1981 when it won the national championship at 12-0.

``To be able to be a division champion three out of four years is a big step,'' Swinney said. ``To be able to have back-to-back 10-win seasons in another big step. That's something we have talked a lot about.''

The Wolfpack, as they have the past two years, will rely on the arm of quarterback Mike Glennon. The senior threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the upset of Clemson and is just a three yards behind Boyd for the ACC lead in passing yards.

The Tigers defense has picked things up the past month. Clemson's defenders were giving up 27 points a game the first six weeks and just 15 a game the last four. Glennon, though, could be the most talented and capable quarterback the Tigers have faced all season, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.

``They've definitely earned our respect,'' Venables said. ``And we're going to have to play better than we have all year.''

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Redskins Talk OTA Special: How to watch, live stream, listen

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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

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USA TODAY Sports

How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

WASHINGTON -- Davey Martinez likes to venture around town when the Nationals are home. He hunts for a quality bottle of red wine in local shops, at times takes a scooter to work and generally operates among the District denizens as if he wasn’t captaining a creaking ship.

When alone, he’s not overly recognizable but clear enough after a year-plus at the helm of the local baseball team to be noticed. The subsequent interactions, he claims, are often positive. Fans say they believe the Nationals will turn it around. They support him. They’re behind the team.

“Fans understand the game,” Martinez said Saturday. “Of course everybody wants to win. We want to win. Trust me. There’s not one guy in that clubhouse that goes out there and wants to give up a home run, wants to strikeout. We all want to win. But I hear a lot of, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ Positive. Things will turn around. I say, 'Thank you. Appreciate it.' I can tell you one thing, the guys are there to play hard.”

Anyone hurling tomatoes at him in the grocery store? Does he have bad interactions?

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, one,” Martinez said with a smile. “And two, you really don’t listen. I don’t even hear most of the stuff that’s going on during games. I really don’t.”

It’s that insular mentality that can help managers survive when the heat is cranked up around them. For Martinez, it’s worrying about “the boys” and not external noise. Chicago’s Joe Maddon prefers “circling the wagons” in a pressurized environment. In New York, where the subpar Nationals open a four-game series Monday night against the stumbling Mets, manager Mickey Callaway is taking shots head-on. MLB Network’s around-the-league show “Quick Pitch” showed Saturday night clips when the Mets announcers called the game “rock bottom.” The Mets were shut out the next day, and he was asked postgame about his job status on both Saturday and Sunday.

Martinez does not use social media. In his free time, he prefers to go hunting or fishing, not scroll through his phone to see any commentary about his job performance. Maddon, his mentor turned antagonist, felt waves early in Tampa Bay and even in Chicago when the Cubs careened to a 2-7 start this year, the last of his contract. He also stays away from Twitter and the radio dial.

“For me, it’s always about circling the wagons,” Maddon said. “As long as you’re pleased with what’s going on within the group, that’s all that matters. Quite frankly, talk radio, social media, that doesn’t matter. If you permit that to matter, that’s kind of your own fault. That’s there for entertainment purposes. That’s there to promote the game. Good. Barroom banter is tremendous. It’s necessary. I get it. But when it comes to running an organization, if you permit noise from the outside to impact your decisions inside, you deserve your fate.”

Rumblings around Martinez have leveled in the last week. A split in Los Angeles pushed back a miserable sweep in Milwaukee. A series win against Callaway’s Mets produced mathematical progress as opposed to any moralistic claims. A tight series against the Cubs ended with a 6-5 loss Sunday. The baseball since Los Angeles has been better.

That doesn’t remove Martinez from outside conversations about his, and the team’s, future. As things cook in New York, the Nationals remain in a desultory spot of eight games under .500 and eight games out. The coming schedule and recently increased health suggests opportunity. Tussling with the Mets is followed by Miami’s arrival at Nationals Park for four games. A quick two-game trip to Atlanta follows. 

Asked about Martinez’s situation, Maddon turned to the space most have pointed at this season: the bullpen. His words were delivered Friday afternoon.

“Love the team on the field,” Maddon said. “Love the talent on the field. Even without [Bryce] Harper being here. Their system has been outstanding. The young players are high-end. I think before you get all weirded out about Davey, let’s get a bullpen that plays consistently well. Then, you can find out what you got. I’m telling you, man, you could do everything right in a ballgame as a manager -- whether it’s pre the game or during the game, that if you can’t get those outs in the latter part of the game, it’s extremely frustrating for everybody.”

The Nationals bullpen was clobbered that evening. It remains last in the league in ERA by a large margin. 

If a Washington turnabout is nigh, it may come from a combination of further roster bolstering (Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman returning), the bullpen progressing to the mean and Juan Soto looking more like the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up. The two first basemen are close to ready. It would be hard for the bullpen to be worse. Five hits in three games for the 20-year-old Soto have him appearing back on track.

In New York, Callaway has little to lean on. His team picked up three hits in two games against lowly Miami during the weekend. Sunday, outspoken starter Noah Syndergaard came to his defense.

"I respect the hell out of Mickey," Syndergaard told reporters Sunday. "Mickey has tremendous leadership values. It's kind of [expletive] what's going on right now with this speculation that there could be a change because we're so early in the season and just one very small step away from putting this all together. It's certainly not on him."

Martinez has not arrived in that territory. Yet. But on the way there -- or out -- he’ll try to use a common tactic of building walls to prevent the outside from seeping inside.

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