CLEMSON, S.C. – Following No. 3 Clemson’s 56-7 whipping of Wake Forest Saturday, head coach Dabo Swinney declared that this was “the most complete team we’ve had” and “the deepest team we’ve had” in his five-plus seasons as the program’s leader.
How so? The Tigers’ high-powered, hurry-up and no-huddle offense is as good as it has ever been: Saturday’s 573-yard effort came against a Demon Deacon defense which had been stingy, entering allowing opponents just 15.8 points per game.
Special teams, led by steady senior kicker Chandler Catanzaro and cannon-legged sophomore punter Bradley Pinion, are solid.
What’s the difference? The defense. In Brent Venables’ second year as defensive coordinator, the unit appears to have turned a corner, which could be the key to Clemson making its first-ever BCS national title game and winning its first national title since 1981.
The Tigers are 38th nationally in total defense, allowing 346.5 yards per game. And they’re allowing 17.3 points per game, 25th nationally.
The defense has proven it can pick up the slack when the offense doesn’t fire on all cylinders, like last week’s 26-14 win at N.C. State. That’s something that just wasn’t possible in the final year of Kevin Steele’s watch or the first half of 2012.
Consider this: In 2011 and the first half of 2012, Clemson allowed at least 27 points to foes 13 times.
Over the last 10 games, it has happened just three times. The Tigers are 9-1 in that stretch.
Saturday marked the first time Clemson had held an ACC foe under 10 points since a 23-3 win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 1, 2011.
Their teammates are feeling more confident, as well.
“I’m not worried about the defense like I was two years ago, or last year,” said star junior receiver Sammy Watkins. “They’re doing a great job. I go against them every day in practice. I know they’re going to be tremendous, week in and week out.”
When Venables took over in January 2012, the Tigers defense was a mess. Former coordinator Kevin Steele’s system seemed too complicated for players to grasp. Players racing into position and frantically signaling pre-snap was a common occurrence; rock bottom was the infamous 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, turning Clemson into a national punch line.
Were there bumps early? Sure. Florida State raced up and down the field in a 49-37 win, and a week later, Boston College put up a big fight before falling 45-31 in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
But Venables’ stated goal of building a defense with a strong front seven is bearing fruit.
Junior defensive end Vic Beasley has six sacks and is tied for second nationally in sacks per game. Junior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is a stout run-stopper, and fellow junior tackles DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson provide no dropoff when they rotate in and out.
Junior end Corey Crawford is a constant presence in opponents’ backfields (four tackles for loss), and freshman end Shaq Lawson is an emerging talent; this week, Swinney said Lawson is the most talented freshman defensive lineman the program has signed in his 11 years as a Clemson assistant and head coach.
Linebackers Stephone Anthony (44 tackles) and Spencer Shuey (39 tackles) are aggressive and play from sideline-to-sideline, and a secondary ravaged by injuries and inexperience has improved.
The secondary, a sore spot last season, has improved, yielding 213 passing yards per game to opponents.
Cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and senior Darius Robinson have played well and stayed largely healthy following injuries that curtailed their 2012 seasons.
Breeland was hampered by hamstring and groin injuries, Jenkins redshirted after suffering a groin injury, and Robinson missed the second half of the season after breaking an ankle against Georgia Tech.
Their health and experience have solidified the back end of the defense.
Venables says his players have bought into his philosophy.
“The effort and the attitude are the foundation,” he said. “Our guys like to play. They’ve bought into that whole standard—this is how you play. You come out and you’re not on edge, don’t have intensity, they will move the ball down the field and embarrass you.”
If Clemson hopes to make the BCS national title game, Venables’ group must keep that intensity and continue its improvement.
Its biggest challenge looms Oct. 19 when Florida State comes into Death Valley. The Seminoles average 51.3 points per game (fifth-best nationally) and 540.4 yards of total offense (ninth nationally), with a high-powered offense led by standout freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.
And while everyone remembers South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney piling up 4.5 sacks in last November’s 27-17 win, Dylan Thompson and the Gamecocks offense played keep-away from Clemson’s offense, holding the ball for over 40 minutes and limiting Clemson to 19 second-half offensive snaps.
Still, the group’s overall improvement makes 2011’s struggles seem like a lot longer than two years ago and gives the Tigers real hope of making a magical run to Pasadena.
“Guys trust each other. They hold each other accountable,” Venables said. “Guys aren’t trying to do too much most of the time. Guys just do their job.”