Spiller vs. Dwyer: Tale of two RBs in ACC title game

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson tailback C.J. Spiller sees a lot of himself in Georgia Tech runner Jonathan Dwyer.

Spiller had long admired Dwyer's powerful, breakaway runs and discipline in helping the 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets perfect an option offense that largely disappeared from major college playbooks two decades ago.

But this summer, Spiller mixed with Dwyer at the ACC's summer gathering and found a kindred soul: a humble, team-first guy with his eyes locked on bringing his program the ultimate prize -- an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

"He's just a version of me," Spiller says.

The two face each other Saturday when Georgia Tech (10-2) and No. 25 Clemson (8-4) play for the league championship in Tampa, Fla.

On Wednesday, Spiller won the ACC's player of the year by a wide margin over Dwyer's Georgia Tech teammate, quarterback Josh Nesbitt. Spiller also earned the league's offensive player of the year, again with Nesbitt in second.

Both Dwyer and Spiller were voted to the all-ACC first team. Dwyer as a running back, Spiller a specialist.

That sounds about right. No one in the ACC this season has been as special as Spiller, the Tigers' do-it-all back who's used his track speed, video-game moves and incredible will -- he's played all year with a painful turf toe injury -- to lift the Tigers to the doorstep of their first conference crown in 18 years.

"When he has the ball in his hands, you better keep your eyes open because he might be down the field if you make one blink," Dwyer said in September before Georgia Tech's 30-27 win over the Tigers. "Any time he touches the ball, it's going to be a show."

From the season's first play, a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown against Middle Tennessee, Spiller showed why he passed up a likely first-round NFL slot last winter for one last chance at a championship.

He's glad the Tigers validated his choice.

"Usually, this week we're not playing, so it's a little bit different," Spiller said with a smile.

Not that it's been an easy path. Despite scoring five of Clemson's first 11 touchdowns, the Tigers were 2-3 and, most thought, out of the Atlantic Division chase.

Spiller and the other seniors gathered the Tigers for a midseason checkup. They talked through their disappointment, Spiller said, and repledged themselves to each other.

The result? A a six-game win streak that took Clemson to a division crown and pushed Spiller into Heisman Trophy consideration.

Spiller seemingly set a school record with each touch. He put up a Clemson best 310 all-purpose yards in a 40-37 overtime win at Miami, then eclipsed it two games later with 312 in a 40-24 win over Florida State.

A week ago at South Carolina, he became the NCAA's all-time leader with his seventh career kickoff return TD and became the fifth Bowl Subdivision player to surpass 7,000 career all-purpose yards.

A normally quiet person, Spiller expanded his reach off the field, too. He challenged teammates when things didn't work, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, and has shown emotion to pump up the Tigers.

Win or lose, Spiller will reach another goal he came back for later this month -- his bachelor's degree in sociology.

"He's developed into quite a man," Swinney says with pride.

Spiller and Dwyer send texts regularly and spoke this week, not so much about the game but to wish each other the best.

Dwyer's sure to give his all as he has throughout his career. He emerged last season in coach Paul Johnson's option attack to lead the ACC in rushing with 1,395 yards and earned the league's 2008 player of the year award.

With defense's keying in on him this fall, Dwyer was almost as productive, entering this week with 1,236 yards and 12 TDs.

Dwyer had six games of 100 yards rushing or more, all coming during Tech's eight-game winning streak that clinched the Coastal Division.

Georgia Tech, which shared the ACC title with Florida State in 1998, hasn't won the crown outright since 1990. Dwyer is ready for that to change.

"To us, we haven't finished our season," he said. "We haven't finished our goal or anything. No. 1 on our goal list is to win the ACC championship and be the champions."

Dwyer, at 6-foot, 235 pounds, combines power with the speed to outrace defenders. That makes him a nightmare to scheme against, Clemson coach Swinney says.

"You watch him in his stance, he's almost falling forward," Swinney said. "He's running downhill in a hurry."

Although Spiller and Dwyer will share the backfield spotlight Saturday, neither sees the game as a one-on-one showdown.

"To me, it's Clemson versus Georgia Tech," Spiller said. "He's going to do everything he can to help his team win. I'm going to do the same thing."