CLEMSON — Two of the nation’s most talented defensive coordinators squared off Saturday night, each of them tasked with drawing up respective game plans for new-look opposing offenses.
It was Kevin Steele’s job to figure out Kelly Bryant and Clemson’s offense. It was Brent Venables’ duty to give his unit a working blueprint despite Auburn having a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and a new-to-Clemson running back who was a nonfactor in the two teams’ showdown a season ago.
Venables pulled through in a major way. In No. 3 Clemson’s 14-6 win over No. 13 Auburn at Memorial Stadium, Clemson’s defense showed up boldly all night long, giving the sometimes-struggling offense some wiggle room as the night unfolded.
"Man, that's about as good of a defensive performance as I've seen in a long time," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Defensively, there's nothing wrong with winning games on defense. You've got to be able to win games a lot of different ways and we demonstrated that we can do that because you never know what type of team you're going to get into."
Auburn marched down to the 1-yard line in its opening drive behind new quarterback Jarrett Stidham, yet was stuffed at the goal line on third down and instead had to settle for a field goal. The SEC Tigers, who led 6-0 a few minutes into the second quarter, ran six plays inside Clemson’s 10-yard line throughout the first half, yet picked up a net gain of zero yards. They never scored again after the field goals, never converting for a touchdown.
Clemson sacked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham a whopping 11 times, a statistic Swinney believed was the second-best in school history, as defensive end Austin Bryant led the charge with four. The defense racked up 14 tackles for loss. Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel had a career-high 14 tackles and linebacker J.D. Davis picked up his first career sack. Auburn managed a paltry 15 yards throughout the entire second half.
"I never doubted myself. It's something I pride myself on," Bryant said of his dominant game after struggling with an injury last season that prevented him from being a regular starter. "So I kind of keep that with me — think about it every day when I get up and start my day. I always had confidence in myself and to be able to do it with the other 10 guys on the defense, there's no greater feeling."
Big night for Pettway
Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey told reporters earlier this week he thought running back Kamryn Pettway would be “anxious” when it came time for kickoff.
Pettway was suspended for Auburn’s first game against Georgia Southern and he had zero carries this time last year when Clemson beat Auburn before he eventually became the SEC’s leading rusher. On Saturday, he redeemed himself as well as he could given Clemson's defense. By the end of the first half, Pettway had 16 carries already for 59 yards, good for nearly 60 percent of Auburn’s total offense.
Despite reports he might not play due to an injury, Auburn used Pettway like a workhorse early. He finished the night with 74 yards on 22 carries.
Faces in the crowd
Clemson was chock-full of familiar faces in town for Saturday night’s showdown.
The nation’s No. 2 and 3 ranked recruits for the class of 2018, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and defensive end Xavier Thomas, were both on hand, as was Zion Williamson — the Spartanburg native who is the nation’s No. 2 basketball recruit. Also in attendance was Clemson basketball alum Jaron Blossomgame, who is now with the San Antonio Spurs.
Junior safety Van Smith, who sprained his knee and was held out of the second half of Clemson’s game against Kent State, was dressed in sweats and did not play. Swinney had dubbed him “questionable” earlier in the week. In his place was sophomore K’Von Wallace. Cornerback Marcus Edmond was injured in the opening three minutes of the game, hobbling off the field with 12:39 remaining in the first quarter with what was diagnosed as a foot sprain. Swinney said his X-rays came back clean. Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson did not dress out as he is still recovering from an injured hamstring.
Swinney in particular paid kudos to Wallace, the sophomore who finished with three tackles and logged significant minutes.
"Really proud of K’Von stepping in and starting at safety for us tonight. That’s not an easy offense," Swinney said. "There's a lot of formations and adjustments and unbalanced quick huddles, their personnel groupings, motion shifts — there’s a lot going on. And for a young guy like K’Von to get his first start at safety ... it was just a great challenge for our defense but at the end of the day we just won in the trenches."