An overwhelming defensive performance and the legs of quarterback Kelly Bryant powered No. 3 Clemson to a 14-6 home win over No. 13 Auburn on Saturday night in Clemson, South Carolina. Clemson's defense racked up a staggering 11 sacks, harassing Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham all game and holding him to just 79 yards passing.
It felt like just about everyone in Death Valley was getting a shot at Stidham, per ESPN's Mark Schlabach:
Mark Schlabach @Mark_Schlabach
"Honk If You Sacked Jarrett Stidham" bumper stickers coming to Clemson, SC soon2017-9-10 02:05:49
ESPN's David Hale pointed out Clemson's pass rush was the nastiest college football has seen in some time:
Clemson has sacked Auburn 11 times, most since Houston had 11 vs Louisville last year. Last P5 team w/12 was Arizona St (vs Wazzu) in 2009.2017-9-10 02:08:43
Defensive end Austin Bryant was a standout performer on a defense that was nearly flawless, per Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:
Bruce Feldman @BruceFeldmanCFB
#Clemson's Austin Bryant had 7 tackles and 4 sacks. Tigers have 14 TFLs, 11 sacks and held Gus Malzahn's offense to 117 yds.2017-9-10 02:11:45
The relentless pressure kept Stidham from finding wide receiver Kyle Davis, who has just one catch for seven yards on the season after missing Week 1's 41-7 win over Georgia Southern due to suspension.
Of course, Auburn's attack is predicated on powerful running, but there was little to no success to be had there either. After missing Week 1 due to suspension, bruising running back Kamryn Pettway gained 74 yards on 22 carries. The Tigers appeared to be missing the explosiveness of Kam Martin, who curiously didn't get any carries, and Kerryon Johnson, who was out for the game after injuring his hamstring in Week 1.
The majority of Auburn's effectiveness was confined to the first half, where it managed two field goals on its first three possessions. Those scores were disappointing and testaments to Clemson's defense, though, as they came after a 15-play drive that stalled out at the 6-yard line and a fumble by Clemson wideout Ray Ray McCloud.
Clemson didn't fare much better with the ball, with just 283 yards of offense, but coach Dabo Swinney's team got just what it needed thanks to the running ability of Bryant, who has the unenviable task of replacing Deshaun Watson on a team that just won the national championship.
Auburn's defense looked to be the tougher unit to start the game, but just when it looked like it might score a knockout blow, Clemson turned the game around.
Midway through the second, Bryant took a hard shot just after getting rid of the ball, forcing him to the sidelines for a spell. Zerrick Cooper took over for a cameo, but Clemson's fourth drive ended in a missed field goal.
Upon returning, Bryant brought the Clemson offense to life. A 12-play, 88-yard drive that mimicked the methodical control Auburn's offense had exhibited earlier in the game ended in a three-yard touchdown dive from Bryant, giving Clemson a 7-6 halftime lead once the extra point was tacked on.
ESPN provided a look at the play:
"Kelly Bryant appears to be just fine!" He does indeed. https://t.co/06kah7ZgE52017-9-10 00:37:24
Bryant brought rhythm to the offense to start the second half, finding Hunter Renfrow and McCloud in the air before closing out a long drive with a 27-yard scoring scamper that saw him break away from two defenders.
USA Today's Dan Wolken compared Bryant to last year's signal-caller:
Dan Wolken @DanWolken
Wow. Kelly Bryant just put together a Deshaun Watson like drive, man. Touchdown Clemson coming out of halftime.2017-9-10 01:01:19
The control that Clemson exerted on those two long drives mirrored what Auburn did in the first quarter, about the only time its offense looked remotely dangerous. Of course, Bryant delivered touchdowns, while Auburn had to settle for field goals.
Clemson's defense was merely getting warmed up after a great first half, as it was in swarming, relentless form throughout the evening. In the second half, Auburn had six drives; five ended in punts, and one ended on a turnover on downs.
Clemson reverted to its form earlier in the game, as it punted four times in the second half. Auburn's defense is unquestionably a strong unit, which led to this lament from Auburn 247Sports' Brandon Marcello:
Brandon Marcello @bmarcello
If you had Auburn's defense as the no-questioned strength of a Gus Malzahn-coached team in his fifth year as AU head coach, I owe you money.2017-9-10 01:26:34
With Auburn's defense keeping the game from getting out of hand, there was indeed an opportunity for coach Gus Malzahn's side to turn the contest on its head late. A 25-yard punt return from Stephen Roberts midway through the fourth quarter put Auburn in great field position, but Clemson's defense turned in its best series of the contest, sacking Stidham three straight times to nullify the threat.
The Opelika-Auburn News' Josh Vitale wondered if Auburn needed to retool its offensive line after the series:
Josh Vitale @AUBlog
Auburn gets into Clemson territory, Jarrett Stidham gets sacked on three straight plays. When does Auburn shuffle the offensive line?2017-9-10 02:05:10
USA Today's Paul Myerberg put the sack-fest in perspective:
Paul Myerberg @PaulMyerberg
To put Clemson's 11 sacks into some perspective, Auburn hadn't allowed more than 19 in an entire season since Malzahn took over in 20132017-9-10 02:24:14
After that crushing series, Clemson saw the game out to victory and move to 2-0 on the season. The defense will have a much tougher test next week, as the Tigers will go on the road to take on Louisville and its electrifying, Heisman-winning quarterback, Lamar Jackson.
Auburn (1-1) has a chance to regroup at home in Week 3 against the Mercer Bears.