Clemson defense delivers against Hokies
CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney was asked to go back in time following Clemson’s 38-17 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday.
The Clemson football coach was asked to think back two weeks earlier, when his defense looked like it would be a season-long liability, just as it was last year.
Did Swinney foresee then a scenario in which his team could defeat Virginia Tech with season lows in yards (295) and plays (66) from his offense?
After all, it was offense that led No. 14 Clemson to its first ACC title in 20 years last fall. It was offense that led Clemson (6-1, 3-1 ACC) to five wins entering Saturday, including a 47-31 victory over Georgia Tech on Oct. 6.
Since January, Swinney has seen numerous defensive debacles, including West Virginia’s 70 points in the Orange Bowl and Florida State’s 667 total yards last month (a 49-37 Clemson loss). He had seen the offense slump to 118th in the nation in yards allowed per play entering Saturday. Would he have thought a blueprint for victory could be built upon defensive play after the shootout against Georgia Tech?
“I wouldn’t think you’re crazy, because crazy things happen in college football,” Swinney said, “but I would have been a skeptic.”
Crazy things happen in college football. Crazy things happened Saturday as Clemson’s defense bailed out the Tigers’ offense. Clemson beat Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2) for the third consecutive time, with all three victories coming by 20 or more points.
On Saturday, Clemson had five offensive three-and-outs. The Tigers entered the game allowing 1.67 sacks per game, but surrendered two sacks on the first series, five in the game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd missed several deep throws against the Hokies’ aggressive man coverage. Sammy Watkins again failed to have a big game (84 yards, eight catches). DeAndre Hopkins did the rarest of things, dropping a sure touchdown.
But the Clemson defense covered for the offense this time, leading the Tigers to program-record tying 11th straight home victory.
“We’ve been bailed out plenty,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I’m not saying we bailed out the offense but we played well enough in spots to complement each other, to give us good field position.”
The Clemson defense and improved special teams play was in part responsible for Virginia Tech starting 11 drives at or inside its 25 yard line. Clemson started six drives in Hokie territory.
Clemson produced four turnovers, including a 74-yard interception returned for a touchdown by safety Jonathan Meeks. Talented but erratic Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas overthrew a pass in the second quarter that hit Meeks in the chest. Meeks had a clear path to the end zone to give Clemson a 17-7 lead.
“There was a lot of green grass,” Meeks said. “Even coach Swinney could have scored on that one.”
Venables said Clemson played with more discipline. Linemen and linebackers stayed in their gaps.
Clemson allowed 5.2 yards per play, well below its season average of 6.56.
Perhaps more than anything, the front four was more active against a young Virginia Tech line that was without starting center Andrew Miller, who suffered a season-ending injury last week.
Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman recorded his first sack of the season and freshman D.J. Reader was especially disruptive, recording seven tackles.
The defense was better, but far from perfect. There were missed tackles that Venables labeled “atrocious.”
Still, Venables said he saw real progress Saturday.
“I’m happy to see our guys have some success,” Venables said.
“But we certainly haven’t arrived.”