CLEMSON, S.C. — Sometimes, numbers can be deceiving.
Take a quick look at No. 8 Clemson's defensive statistics against No. 5 Georgia Saturday night, for example. On the surface, the numbers are not impressive.
The Tigers allowed 545 yards of total offense for 35 points. Georgia held the ball for 32 minutes, 18 seconds and scored on four of five red-zone possessions—all touchdowns.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you can understand why Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables were encouraged by the defense's effort following the Tigers' 38-35 win over the Bulldogs.
There were cringeworthy moments—like Todd Gurley's first-quarter 75-yard touchdown run and a five-play, 64-yard fourth-quarter drive that gave the Bulldogs one last shot at victory—but in between, Clemson's defense made more than enough winning plays against a high-powered offense.
"The silver lining is that we won the game despite not playing the game as well as we thought we would," Venables said. "We expected to win but for me, I'm to a certain degree disappointed that we didn't play better at the right times. But for our guys it was a gritty win, a tough win, and it was a team win. Those are always fun to be a part of. Really proud of our guys."
Over the first 17 minutes, the Tigers defense was staggered. Georgia touched the ball four times; following an initial three-and-out, the Bulldogs reached the end zone three consecutive times, gaining 247 yards of total offense.
It wasn't pretty.
That said, here's how the next six drives ended: punt, fumble, punt, interception, end of the first half, punt. No drive lasted longer than four plays, and the Bulldogs gained minus-eight net yards.
Linebacker Stephone Anthony's strip-sack fumble, recovered by fellow 'backer Spencer Shuey at the UGA 16, set up a Clemson touchdown. And after Sammy Watkins' fumbled punt gave the Bulldogs possession at the Clemson 30, defensive end Corey Crawford dropped into coverage and picked off quarterback Aaron Murray on the very next play.
"We just crunked things up," Crawford said. "I don't know. We told ourselves we're going to play with these boys, we're fixing to stop them and that's what we did."
From the second quarter on, Clemson consistently got pressure on Murray, piling up four sacks and making his life difficult. Murray threw for 323 yards but threw no touchdowns against an interception. On the night, Georgia converted just four of 14 third-down opportunities.
"We were disruptive enough at some key times where they threw some errant balls," Venables said. "I think those guys came out and played really at a high level and responded to the challenge well. To me that was the difference in the game."
It was an especially promising beginning for a defensive line that built on a strong finish to 2012. A year ago, the Tigers had just four sacks in the first four games combined and nine in the first six.
However, they piled up 25 over the final seven. That stretch directly corresponded with the defense's overall improvement; Clemson allowed more than 25 points just twice in the final six games after doing so four times in the first seven.
Junior defensive end Vic Beasley was the only new starter along the line; he had eight sacks in just 288 snaps last season behind Malliciah Goodman, now with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
Saturday, Beasley fit perfectly in his first career start, making two sacks.
"We have competitors up front who are unselfish and like to play," Swinney said. "I like our depth. We have Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Shaq Lawson's a very solid true freshman and Tavaris Barnes is playing well.
"With all of our guys inside, we feel we've got a good group we can roll (at defensive tackle), and it's encouraging to see them perform against a team like that. We have to be consistent and have that type of effort every single week."
Venables blamed himself for his defense's failings, including Gurley's long run and the final two-minute drive, which he wrote off to passive strategy on his part.
"The 75-yarder up the gut, I wanted to punch myself in the face," he said. "And that long two-minute drive at the end, that was all my fault. I should have let our boys up front hunt. Lesson learned."
Plenty of room for improvement remains. Safety tandem Travis Blanks and Robert Smith made their first career starts at the position against Georgia, and cornerback remains unsettled: Monday, Clemson listed senior Darius Robinson the starter at one spot over junior Martin Jenkins, while juniors Bashaud Breeland and Garry Peters are listed as co-starters at the other spot.
4-star corner signee, per Rivals.com, Mackensie Alexander, who missed the Georgia game with a groin injury, is expected to play this week against South Carolina State and could challenge for significant playing time quickly.
"We've got a lot to get better," Venables said. "A lot of things can happen good or bad. Our job as coaches is to keep our guys humble, keep good perspective, but if we're going to have any chance to be any good we've got to get better in a lot of areas."
Venables is an intense competitor who won a BCS national title in 2000 as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator.
His standards are high, and it's fair to say that if Clemson hopes to challenge for a BCS crown this fall, much progress is necessary.
"The real test was, we weren't buying into (everything) before, the doubters or the hype, and we can't change that now," he said. "It's a long season, and there's a lot still sitting in front of us."