CLEMSON — The questions swarmed Brent Venables like an all-out blitz, and he shed them all with one all-encompassing answer.
Multiple defenders walking wounded. A 10th straight Saturday on the field. A balanced, deep corps of receivers opposite the line of scrimmage, and the breakneck speed of North Carolina’s offense, a tempo like the Tigers have not seen before these past two years.
“I’m not going to create this life of its own issue,” said Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator and Broyles Award finalist as one of the country’s top assistant coaches.
“It is an issue. We need to get lined up, put our hands in the dirt and play. If we do that, we have a chance to be successful. It’s not, oh my gosh, they’re going to go really, really fast, and we’ve played 10 in a row, and (defenders are playing hurt), what are we going to do?”
Yet that is one of the catalysts to deconstructing No. 1 Clemson’s ACC Championship matchup with No. 8 North Carolina, which didn’t get here by playing the field position game. The Tar Heels average 41.3 points and 495 yards per game, and they do it by snapping the football on average every 23.3 seconds — which is more than four seconds faster than the collective average of Clemson’s 12 opponents to date.
“Their tempo is really, really fast, all the time,” Venables said. “They do a good job of spreading the ball out, putting themselves in advantageous positions by checking the sidelines, seeing what (formation) you’re in. So we’ve got to do a good job in our presentation.”
The Tigers don’t feel they’re at a disadvantage in terms of UNC’s speed. Because, after all, their own offense snaps it every 24 seconds.
“We’re used to going against their offense because that’s what our offense does against us when we’re going to practice every week,” junior defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “So it’s not a big challenge for us. We’ve just got to be ready to play.”
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams’ season started in disastrous fashion, putting two end-zone throws into the belly of South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore as part of tossing three interceptions in the Gamecocks’ 17-13 loss at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 3.
Since then, Williams has 28 total touchdowns and just five interceptions during North Carolina’s 11-game winning streak. The Charlotte product is back for a second chance at knocking off a Palmetto State foe, and the stakes have been raised.
“As a child you’re growing up playing video games like NCAA College Football and you put yourself at quarterback, and you go into the ACC Championship,” Williams said. “This is a dream come true to get another opportunity to go back home to Charlotte and just to play against a very good football team who is No. 1 in the country.”
What could Clemson coaches glean from Williams’ terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad night against South Carolina?
“Uh, nothing. Nothing. Hope their quarterback throws it to us a bunch,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “I mean, their quarterback had a bad night. Otherwise, it’s not a close game. That’s just the reality of it. (Williams) would probably tell you that. They didn’t really stop ‘em. North Carolina just didn’t finish their drives.”
Williams’ life has been easier with four viable receiving threats — Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard are over 25 catches, 400 yards and three touchdowns a piece — and the league’s No. 2 rusher, Elijah Hood, with a capable backup T.J. Logan. Hood, Logan and Williams all average more than six yards a carry.
“Guys have got to play well across the board,” said Venables of minding multiple threats. “It’s not like other weeks, hey Cordrea (Tankersley, a Clemson cornerback), they got this ham-and-egger over here and Jerry Rice out here, so you’re good this week.
“But sometimes, they probably see that for themselves too. Everybody’s on high alert. I love it, because I think our guys are smart enough to recognize the issues. Hopefully it brings the best out of our guys.”
UNC scored exactly 200 points in four November victories. Clemson allowed 41 points to N.C. State, 27 points to Syracuse and 32 points to South Carolina, none of whom had particularly dominant offenses.
“They’ve been on fire,” Lawson said. “We’ve just got to come in and play four quarters. The last couple weeks we just haven’t been playing a whole four quarters on the side of the defense. But we’ve come in looking for this game. We know it’s championship time, and we’ve just got to be ready to play.”