SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Success for Extreme Dabo Makeover II
ATLANTA — Fourth down and no chance for Auburn, the last few seconds ticking away on Clemson’s 26-19 victory at the Georgia Dome.
New defensive coordinator Brent Venables was waving his arms Saturday night and screaming at 11 guys, telling them exactly how to conservatively hold Auburn to one touchdown.
“The Orange Bowl was last season,” linebacker Jonathan Willard said. “We’ve been all about focusing on this season.”
Auburn isn’t West Virginia.
But more than Andre Ellington’s Heisman Trophy campaign jump-start, DeAndre Hopkins’ school-record 13 catches or impressive offensive line play in the second half, the suspect defense stood out.
Just as head coach Dabo Swinney’s decision to turn play-calling strategy over to Chad Morris in 2011 sparked the offense, getting Venables from Oklahoma looks like another big step toward building the kind of consistent winner fans want.
What a long, strange off-season for Clemson. Coming off their first ACC title since 1991, coaches and players had to explain the 70-33 nightmare in Miami.
“Adversity comes,” strong safety Rashard Hall said, “and a champion knows how to deal with it.”
Rewarding the reaction Saturday night, Swinney gave out two game balls. One to strength and conditioning coach Joey Batson, maligned by some after the Orange Bowl, the other to Venables, who replaced the dismissed Kevin Steele.
“I’m really proud of the relationship (Venables) has with our players,” Swinney said, “and the trust they have in him.”
Auburn, despite 374 yards of offense, didn’t get into the end zone after the first quarter.
‘Work to do’
Venables was the best-dressed coach on the Clemson sideline, and as animated as anyone on the excitable staff. He wore an orange ballcap, purple shirt, khakis and white sneakers with bright orange shoelaces.
The 41-year-old Kansas native talks the part, too.
“We did a good job of making adjustments,” Venables said. “We have work to do, obviously. We have to be a lot more consistent. We can’t leave guys uncovered.”
Like former boxing champ Evander Holyfield — who talked to Clemson team Friday night — the Tigers defense took punches but kept dishing it out.
Auburn’s first possessions of both halves ended in punts.
Willard recovered a fumble and Hall intercepted a pass to end back-to-back Auburn drives in the first half.
Cornerback Bashaud Breeland made force plays on the edge, the kind of big hits that turned momentum.
“We’ve matured. We’ve progressed,” Breeland said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve fixed a lot of mistakes.”
On to Tallahassee
Venables at times holds his hands behind his back on the sideline, as if restraining himself from darting onto the field to make a tackle.
“He looks really intense,” Hall said. “But he’s pretty calm.”
One hire is not the fulcrum that moves the Clemson world.
The repair project is bigger than a horrible Orange Bowl, requiring more tools and sweat.
Remember? Muddy losses at N.C. State and South Carolina came before Clemson’s sparkling Charlotte night against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.
Clear progress, however.
“We knew they were pretty flexible with their personnel,” Venables said of Auburn. “But I just love the attitude of our guys. We made a lot of good plays down the stretch in that second half.”
And now Clemson has the Ball State and Furman games to tweak things before taking its new and improved defense to Florida State.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at email@example.com or Twitter/ @sapakoff.