RALEIGH — With a comfy three-touchdown lead and less than a quarter remaining, most defenses would be content with how No. 3 Clemson tucked away Thursday night’s 26-14 win at North Carolina State.
WHO: Wake Forest at Clemson
WHEN: Sept. 28, 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
See, as long as offensive stars Tajh Boyd and Chad Morris have been the headliners of Clemson football, the Tigers’ defense has merely been expected to hang in there, to bend but not break.
So, relatively speaking, forcing the host Wolfpack to require 23 plays on one drive, not scoring until 3 minutes, 50 seconds remained in the game — too little time for a serious rally — should have been regarded as a triumph.
Not so. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables isn’t satisfied, and will not coddle nor placate his players.
“That second-to-last drive just about killed me. Oh, my God,” Venables said of the 7:32 Wolfpack march.“There’s a lot of disappointment for us as coaches. But that was a huge part of that game, where they had to burn so much clock on that drive.”
Had the Tigers employed poor prevent defense and let the Wolfpack strike quickly, maybe the ending would have been more dramatic. Main mission, accomplished.
However, as he’s wont to do, Venables kept looking at the big picture. N.C. State went 4 for 4 on fourth downs on what unofficially registers as one of the longest opposing touchdown drives in school history (the record books don’t have an answer, but veteran sports information director Tim Bourret couldn’t recall a longer one.)
“We weren’t in bend-but-don’t-break (mode); we were in a stop-everything-they-do defense,” Venables said. “And unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
Is that the new normal? Where moral victories and tolerable yet unspectacular defense isn’t good enough? Where the demanding defensive coordinator is impossible to please?
“That’s a great mindset,” junior defensive end Vic Beasley said. “Coach Venables is a great defensive coordinator. He wants the best for us. He wants no touchdowns on the board. He wants shutouts.”
Clemson hasn’t pitched one of those in five years, and none against an ACC opponent in 15 years (23-0 over Maryland in 1998.)
The Tigers may not get one this year. But since a rocky start against Georgia, they’ve been as stout as it gets.
Three touchdowns were scored by Georgia on Clemson’s defense in the first 17 minutes of the season, capped by fullback Quandon Hicks’ 1-yard plunge with exactly 13 minutes left in the second quarter of the Tigers’ 38-35 win.
In 167 minutes of game time since then, opponents have scored six touchdowns (two in each game involved), and three of those — one in each game would be considered a “garbage-time” score when the outcome was pretty much out of doubt. The next successful field goal kicked against Clemson will be the first of 2013.
So, if the first 17 minutes are forgiven, the Tigers’ scoring defense averages out to roughly 15 points allowed per game. That would translate to a top 20 national unit.
Not bad for “the weak link” of the program, as it’s been called before.
“Let me just tell you: it’s great to win on defense,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “(N.C. State) presented some very, very difficult challenges, with formations and how they were releasing guys into the patterns, and our defense gave us a chance to win the game, especially when our offense was not clicking early on.”
Beasley’s statline is studly: five sacks through three games. His strip-sack of quarterback Pete Thomas, recovered by linebacker Spencer Shuey, was a game-changer.
“I feel like our defensive players depend on me to make big plays. I’m like, ‘alright guys, I got you,’ ” Beasley said. “It’s not too much pressure on me, but I know what the guys expect of me.”
His bookend, Corey Crawford, is also infiltrating the backfield and has an interception while doing his job as a run protector.
But it was a freshman backup, Shaq Lawson, who exploded onto the scene with 2½ tackles for loss, including a key third-down stop — one of many times N.C. State was befuddled on “money” down (3 for 16.)
“It felt good coming in on third down, getting a key stop for our offense to get the ball back,” Lawson said. “We’ve got good depth from the linebackers and D-line, so anybody can come in at any time and step up for us.”
Not good enough. Venables won’t love the 18 first downs, the 4.6 yards per rush, the disaster averted when flanker Bryan Underwood twice stepped out of bounds on his way to a would-be long touchdown.
“Man, we left a lot on the field, and they’ll say the same thing,” Venables said. “It’s usually like that. Our guys know. They knew on the field. We made some fundamental mistakes. But this game was about us showing the courage and the toughness to win and fight and swing for 60 minutes.
“We knew they were going to make some plays, and our guys just kept fighting. That’s what you love about it.”