ORLANDO, FLA. — As a member of a team, Clemson running back Will Shipley could delight in where the Tigers stood on Dec. 27.
The salvaging of a 2-2 start to the season landed the Tigers (9-3) in Orlando for the Cheez-It Bowl and afforded one more opportunity to make the best of the 2021 season. The offense, in particular, has transformed from a unit incapable of scoring 20 points to an attack averaging 38 points per game over the final month of the season.
"I'm so excited for our future," Shipley said shortly after Clemson came off the field at Boone High School after the team's last pre-bowl practice in Orlando.
It's been nice to spend December in 80-degree weather, practicing, riding roller coasters and eating way too many Cheez-Its with friends. But when the subject shifted from Clemson as a team to Shipley as an individual, there was a seriousness in the freshman's tone. Did the five-star recruit feel satisfied as he reflected on his 2021 campaign?
"No," Shipley said. "I came into the season with very high expectations, and I didn't meet my expectations."
Shipley wouldn't specify what those expectations included, whether it was a 1,000-yard season or specific ACC awards. Those goals, he said, are personal. But if the question is whether Shipley and his teammates feel like there is more left on the table heading into a 5:45 p.m. kickoff Dec. 29 at Camping World Stadium, then the answer is an emphatic "yes."
The matchup with Iowa State offers the Tigers offense a chance to carry momentum forward from the month of November and into the new year, under the leadership of a new offensive coordinator, Brandon Streeter. It's an offense that should return its entire offensive line, young running backs in Shipley, Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah, and plenty of young receiving talent, too.
Shipley had a good year, especially considering he missed three games with a leg injury. The native of Weddington, N.C., amassed 678 yards and 10 touchdowns, including 100-yard games in three of his last four contests. When Shipley and Pace had success running the ball, Clemson's offense found its stride.
Against Iowa State, the Tigers don't intend to lose it.
"I don't think the momentum ever really stopped, to be honest," Shipley said. "We're feeling as good as we felt in the whole season, as confident as we've been through all the games we've played. We're just ready to go out there and make it happen and continue to build that momentum to carry into next season, in the offseason, and into the future."
Shipley believes there are better days ahead, but the finale will offer a glimpse of what's to come. Streeter will call his first game as the Tigers' offensive coordinator, and it doesn't sound like the former Clemson quarterback will want to chuck it 50 times a game. He knows what it's like to stand in a pocket and invite edge-rushers to pin their ears back.
It sounded like, as Shipley hinted at aspects of the game plan, that Streeter wants to do everything in his power to put defenses on their heels. That includes pushing the pace at the line of scrimmage.
"I think that will be something we see," Shipley said. "We'll just see how the game goes, how it unfolds. But tempo is never a bad thing. It's never a bad thing to get defenses tired. Holes get bigger, wide receivers get more open."
How the Tigers open holes should be a key factor in this matchup. Iowa State ranks No. 22 in the NCAA in rush defense, holding opponents to an average of 122 yards per game. But teams that have beaten the Cyclones, including Oklahoma and Texas Tech, have been able to amass 200-plus yards apiece on the ground.
Clemson rushed for 598 yards total on Wake Forest and South Carolina in its last two games of the regular season.
The running game for Clemson certainly has some mojo going, and Shipley was certainly proud of all Clemson's offense had accomplished as he stood on a high school field in Orlando post-practice. But as he reflected on the last year, he thought about those personal goals he hasn't quite reached.
I hope," Shipley said, "I can reach some of those goals next year."