CLEMSON, S.C. – Two years ago, Clemson’s defense reached its nadir in a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.
Under Brent Venables, the Tigers defense has improved dramatically over the past two seasons. Clemson improved across the board from 2011 to 2012 and did so again this season.
In 2013, the Tigers are allowing 21.1 points (down from 24.9 a year ago), 350.8 yards (down from 411), 198.3 passing yards (down from 250.3) and 152.6 rushing yards (down from 160.7 a year ago) per game.
In addition, the Tigers have 33 sacks and 112 tackles for loss (up from 28 and 79, respectively, at this time a year ago).
The group Venables will take to South Florida for Jan. 3’s Orange Bowl against Ohio State is significantly better than the defense that Kevin Steele fielded for his final game as defensive coordinator against the Mountaineers.
These guys look competent. They understand what’s going on before the snap, unlike Steele’s defenses, which tended to run around in a haze of confusion.
However, Venables’ defense still has one major flaw: stopping mobile quarterbacks.
South Carolina’s Connor Shaw proved that on Nov. 30. The Gamecocks’ senior quarterback rushed 22 times for 94 yards, keying a clock-chewing offense that kept Clemson’s high-powered offense off the field and holding the ball for 38:09.
Given the guy who’ll line up under center for Ohio State on Jan. 3, that is a huge concern.
Junior quarterback Braxton Miller’s best weapon is his ground game: Miller rushed for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
That’s especially impressive when you consider that college football subtracts sack yardage from rushing totals. Take negative yardage away, and Miller would’ve rushed for 1,199 yards.
“He’s like having a running back that can throw the football,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s fast and powerful. He’s an outstanding football player that can beat you in a lot of different ways.”
So how will Clemson slow down Miller and, in turn, the Buckeyes’ prolific offense?
The Tigers’ defenders are confident they’ve learned from their mistakes and can parlay that into success in South Florida.
“We’ve got to find a way to contain the quarterback better,” said junior safety Robert Smith. “And I feel like we will. We’ve learned from it, and coming off a game where a quarterback beat us with his legs, we’re going to be way more cognizant of it.”
Miller and Ohio State’s coaches will surely lick their lips in anticipation after watching Clemson’s third-down performance against South Carolina.
The Tigers entered the game allowing opponents to convert less than 30 percent of third downs, sixth-best nationally. However, South Carolina converted 10 of their 19 third downs, which is just under 50 percent.
Shaw was a particular menace, rushing five times for 40 yards. Three of those carries converted first downs, going for two, 14 and 10 yards. A fourth gained 12 yards on 3rd-and-13, setting up a 4th-and-1 that saw Clemson jump offside. Shaw rushed for a 12-yard gain on the next play.
In addition, he converted a trio of third downs through the air, passing for 10, 12 and 14 yards.
Tiger linebackers and safeties seemed caught off guard by Shaw, who often had huge expanses of green grass to scramble through.
Smith says it won’t happen again.
“Just make better adjustments,” he said. “I think South Carolina outschemed us in that part of the game. On third down, (Shaw) made a lot of third downs with his legs. We’re going to take that into consideration when we play this game.”
Containing Ohio State’s passing game would also give the Tigers a huge edge. While Miller has 22 touchdowns against just five interceptions, the Buckeyes have not made a major impact through the air.
|Comparing Clemson's defense in 2012 and 2013|
|Year||Points per game||Total yards per game||Passing yards per game||Rushing yards per game||Yards per play|
OSU averages 200.9 yards passing per game, which is 91st nationally.
Meanwhile, Clemson’s pass defense—keyed by Smith, junior corner Bashaud Breeland and senior corner Darius Robinson—has been excellent. The Tigers are 15th nationally in pass defense.
Blanketing the Buckeyes’ receivers should free up more energy to focus on Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
Before Shaw, Clemson held mobile quarterbacks in check. Clemson limited N.C. State’s Pete Thomas to 30 yards on 14 carries, Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt to 57 yards on 13 carries and Georgia Tech option quarterback Vad Lee to 22 yards on 12 carries.
If the Tigers can learn from their South Carolina mistakes against Miller, they stand an excellent chance of putting their late-season frustrations behind and beginning 2014 with another huge marquee victory.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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