CLEMSON — The numbers bear out a sneaking suspicion about the Clemson defense: the Tigers come out gangbusters leaving the locker room, but struggle to sustain their world-beating level of play for 60 minutes.
Clemson has the fourth-best scoring defense in the nation when just considering first quarters, but drops to 48th nationally in the fourth quarter. The Tigers allowed just two field goals in the opening quarter of their first nine games, shut out the opponent in nine of 13 first quarters and have allowed and average of 2.1 points per first quarter; however, they’ve been nicked for 5.9 points per fourth quarter.
“I don’t know what the recipe for that is. I couldn’t tell you,” senior linebacker Ben Boulware said.
How does a defense start a game on fire, and keep it going the whole night against good offenses?
“Do your damn job. It’s about as simple as that,” Boulware said. “Maybe guys get lackadaisical in the second quarter. I really don’t know what the answer to that is.”
Clemson (No. 9 in total defense) has allowed more first downs in the second half than the first half in nine out of 13 games, though its most significant example of good-first-half, bad-second-half happened to be its only loss.
Pittsburgh gashed the Tigers on its opening drive (five plays, 75 yards, TD), the only team to score against Clemson on its first possession. The Panthers totaled more yards on that touchdown drive than nine Clemson opponents gained in their entire first-quarter efforts against the Tigers, and Pitt ultimately rolled up 176 yards on 16 plays in the first 15 minutes and an eye-popping 356 yards before halftime.
N.C. State also thrived early and often against Clemson, garnering 274 of its 397 yards in the first 30 minutes of what became a 24-17 defeat in overtime.
More frequently, when Clemson has started strong and leveled off, the Tigers have not lost – but they’ve sometimes put themselves in jeopardy of blowing a big lead, most notably in the ACC Championship Game.
Virginia Tech four times trailed by 14 points, and all four times cut the Tigers’ lead to seven. The Tigers took a 35-14 lead with 4:45 remaining in the third quarter, but found themselves nursing a 35-28 edge with just over 11 minutes left in the game and needed to stop the Hokies’ offense with less than 90 second to go to preserve the league title.
Virginia Tech had nine first downs through three quarters, but moved the chains 10 times in the fourth.
“I think we had five drives in a row with either a 3-and-out or a turnover, and then three drives we were an abomination of defense,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Then luckily we decided we were going to play again and we were able to get off the field.
“When they seize momentum, they make a play and we get on our heels. We just didn’t do a good job coaching them.”
The incident wasn’t isolated. Auburn had just 38 yards and three first downs at halftime, but put up 224 yards and 14 first downs in the second half and had a Hail Mary throw to the end zone on the final play in an attempt to steal victory from Clemson after trailing by 10. Troy trailed 27-10 with 10 minutes remaining in the Tigers’ home opener; the Tigers had to recover an onside kick with 44 seconds to go for a 6-point win. Louisville went to the halftime locker room down 28-10; the Cardinals fell three yards short of a tremendous comeback win in a top-five matchup. Florida State was down two touchdowns after 13 minutes; the Noles stormed back to lead 28-20 at the end of the third quarter, though Clemson rallied to prevail 37-34.
“We just have to be a consistent, strong, tough, dominant defense for four quarters,” sophomore defensive end Christian Wilkins said. “As good as we play at times, I feel like we still haven’t played our best football. So that’s still ahead of us. We hopefully have two more games to get the results we want.”
Georgia Tech and Wake Forest were other trips where the Tigers played phenomenal early, but cruised the rest of the way without necessarily blowing out their opponent, as they did to S.C. State, Boston College, Syracuse and South Carolina.
“We’d like to line up and just kill everybody for four quarters, but everybody’s got good players,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “As you go through the course of a game, people make adjustments, and sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes the offense puts them in bad situations and gives them short fields. All those things matter. But we’ve been pretty good.”