CLEMSON -- The loss to Miami in October was DeAndre McDaniel's most painful experience as a Clemson player. Miami wide receiver Leonard Hankerson beat him for two long touchdowns and McDaniel also took a helmet to the facemask, loosening four of his teeth. Motivated by the disappointment, the senior safety afterward vowed to play his best football from then on.
McDaniel lived up to his word. He improved his play, free-lanced less, helping the Tigers' defense improve from an 85th overall ranking in early October to a 23rd overall rank as the Tigers travel to Charlotte today to continue preparation for Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl.
While the Clemson defense improved, the offense did not, and Clemson finds itself in danger of its first losing season since 1998. Despite the disappointment, McDaniel offered another promise
this December: He and his fellow seniors will not be going through the motions in their final college game. They want a winning season.
"We all know we really didn't have the season we wanted to have," McDaniel said. "We are a better team than our record shows. We just want to go out there and get better as a team and show how we were supposed to be all season. At the beginning the season, I felt like we had national championship talent and I still feel like we got it. We just didn't get the breaks this year.
"We want to accomplish a winning season."
Some have questioned how much motivation the Tigers will have after a heartbreaking loss at Florida State and an embarrassing defeat against South Carolina in the regular season's final month. But McDaniel said the Tigers have been resilient.
"Everyone has been into it all year," McDaniel said. "After every loss we have had, we come back the next week to work. That is one thing we haven't had a problem with all year. Everybody comes to work."
Like McDaniel, coach Dabo Swinney says his team will be ready for South Florida.
"They're excited about playing," Swinney said, "excited about ending the season on a positive note."
McDaniel has other personal motivations to perform well against South Florida.
McDaniel was projected as a second- or third-round draft pick last year in a safety-rich draft, but he elected to return, in part to improve his draft stock. Entering the bowl game, McDaniel's stock has remained at the 2009 level.
"It was an average season," McDaniel said. "I didn't have the big season I was expected. That's a credit to our D-line, too. We were mainly three-and-outs in the (second half). There were not a lot of plays out there for me to make. … Not too many quarterbacks passing it."
Last season, McDaniel was third in the nation in interceptions with eight. This season McDaniel has four, though his 15 career interception rank third among FBS players.
"Sometimes I went and tried to get the ball," said McDaniel of his play early in the season. "I had to settle down."
Though McDaniel doesn't believe his dip in production should hurt his NFL stock, the senior still has one last game to improve it and make good on another promise.
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).