There’s a banner hanging at Clemson football’s indoor training facility that reads “National Finalists.”
Coach Dabo Swinney says it’s there to remind his players how special it was to go 14-1 last year and put a scare into Alabama in the national championship game.
Senior linebacker Ben Boulware has an entirely different interpretation. He detests that banner. It’s a daily reminder that had Clemson’s defense done its job against the Crimson Tide, there wouldn’t be unfinished business spurring this season’s Tigers.
“It’s been (ticking) me off for a year and (ticked) the rest of our team off. Especially the defense,” Boulware said Wednesday. “Going out there and losing that game…seeing that sign every day. Just thinking about it (ticks) me off.
“I think coach Swinney has done a good job of putting that right in our face.”
Swinney says the banner wasn’t intended as a mind game. But if that’s been the effect – if it’s made Boulware and his fellow defenders sharper and more focused headed into Monday night’s title rematch with Alabama – then what’s the harm?
Boulware knows this much: “When you score 40 points, you’re supposed to win the game,” Boulware said of Alabama’s 45-40 victory a year ago in Glendale, Ariz.
It’s rare that a team returns to the title game a year after finishing runner-up. It’s rarer still that there would be a rematch with the team that beat them.
Swinney says he would have been fine playing either Alabama or Washington, the team the Crimson Tide beat in Atlanta to advance to the title game in Tampa, Fla.’s Raymond James Stadium.
“I think our entire team, if we had to pick between Alabama or Washington – no disrespect to Washington – but everyone wanted to play Alabama. Ben Boulware
Boulware again diverges from his coach’s view: He wanted Alabama, and this sounded personal Wednesday.
“Absolutely,” Boulware said. “I think our entire team, if we had to pick between Alabama or Washington – no disrespect to Washington – but everyone wanted to play Alabama.
“To go out there and lose that game last year, of course you want another chance to play them."
Talk to Ben Boulware ... at mid-week, and you encounter an analytical, articulate spokesman for this team. Something changes on the football field that is almost primeval.
Boulware has many layers. Talk to him an hour after a game or at mid-week, and you encounter an analytical, articulate spokesman for this team.
Something changes on the football field that is almost primeval. Boulware drew multiple unnecessary roughness penalties at Clemson, often for essentially picking up opposing backs and slamming them to the ground.
You can’t play his position and hate collisions. But this is something beyond. Boulware revels in the physicality of football. You could picture him driving in one of those demolition derbies, taking glee in taking out four or five jalopies.
“That’s how I play the game. How I have and always will,” said Boulware, who has a team-high 121 tackles this season, including four sacks. He is generally projected as a mid- to late-round pick in the NFL draft.
“It doesn’t feel good after the game. A lot of Sunday sucks. You lay in bed a lot of the day and get in the cold tub more than often.”
The way I play football, maybe that’s a tribute to my older brother for beating me up. Ben Boulware
The intensity of all this came to light this week in response to defensive lineman Christian Wilkins grabbing an opposing player’s crotch during the 31-0 semifinal victory over Ohio State.
Boulware said he finds it amusing to grab opposing players’ butts, and scoffed at critics who might call this barbaric or sophomoric.
“People who say that have either never played football or never been in a locker room,” Boulware said.
This is a guy who grew up on motocross races and front-yard wrestling matches with cousins. Ask him where he gets his toughness, and he credits older brother Garrett, a Clemson baseball player who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds.
“The way I play football, maybe that’s a tribute to my older brother for beating me up,” Boulware recalled.
If Clemson beats Alabama Monday, there is only one appropriate way to conclude Boulware’s college career:
Let the man tear that “National Finalists” banner to shreds.