Dominant defensive effort lifts Clemson

Clemson's Tajh Boyd runs past Boston College for a touchdown during fourth-quarter action in Clemson, S.C. on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. (Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

The moment he hears those two dirty numbers — 70-33 — Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd first winces, then smirks and shakes his head.

“Ridiculous,” Boyd interjects, “I still hear about it.”

Oh, how long ago that 2012 Orange Bowl seems. A defensive coordinator ousted. A successful program reaching only as far as its golden-armed leader and the offense would carry it. A catchy yet demeaning moniker memorializing what West Virginia did to the 2011 ACC champion Tigers: The South Beach Smackdown.

Look who’s smacking now.

When the Clemson offense stalls, the Clemson defense soars. Now they’re just showing off by actually scoring themselves, on top of stifling its fifth straight opponent in the third-ranked Tigers’ 24-14 survival over pesky Boston College on Saturday, allowing 77,506 fans at Memorial Stadium to finally exhale at the end of a nervy afternoon.

It sure wasn’t pretty on offense, marred by turnovers, pre-snap penalties, missed scoring chances and uncharacteristic sloppiness. Clemson (6-0, 4-0 ACC) fumbled five times (four in the first half), losing two to the Eagles, and botched two field-goal attempts while having a 47-yard Martavis Bryant touchdown nullified by an illegal formation penalty.

But head coach Dabo Swinney wasn’t joshing three weeks ago after a 26-14 win at North Carolina State, gleefully basking in how much he loved winning on defense.

This stat about says it all: 13, 14, 7, 14 and 14. Clemson’s last five opponents’ point amounts. It’s the first time in 23 years five straight foes have failed to eclipse a mere two-touchdown tally.

“We’re not elite,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables concluded, “but we’re working towards that.”

That’s about as rah-rah a comment to be expected out of Venables, and he had reason to be looser than normal at the midpoint of his second season at Clemson.

The nation’s leading rusher is no longer that as he boards the charter flight back from Clemson. BC senior Andre Williams rushed for 70 yards, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, both figures right around half his season averages.

Of his 24 carries, Williams went between 10-20 yards three times. He was stopped for a loss five times, for no gain twice, and in all, settled for two yards or less an incredible 17 attempts.

That’s one week after Syracuse ran for 323 yards on the Tigers. Venables challenged his players in reactionary practices. They responded with 11 tackles for a loss.

“If we’re going to be something, let’s be tough,” Venables said. “We haven’t arrived, by any stretch. But we are tough, we are playing with great effort, playing with discipline, we’ve got good leadership, and we continue to show a great deal of resolve.”

Swinney spent the week singing the praises of star-in-the-making defensive end Vic Beasley, who did add one to his national-leading total of nine sacks. Part of Swinney’s weeklong discourse was telling media Beasley was once close to converting to running back.

“He got to play running back after all,” Swinney said. “He got to go run for a touchdown.”

With the Eagles (3-3, 1-2) desperately trying to mount a fourth-quarter comeback deep in its own zone, junior linebacker Tony Steward sacked Chase Rettig on the run and jarred the ball loose.

Instead of instinctively leaping on the ball to ensure possession, Beasley had scoop-and-score on his mind, going 13 yards to the end zone for a 10-point lead to seal Clemson’s survival.

“I realized that there was no one else around, so I was like, why not take a chance here?” Beasley said. “We needed the points, and luckily it came out great.”

Clemson trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time this year — it actually never led until 6:59 to go in the third on Sammy Watkins’ 48-yard reception, but promptly resumed its deficit on Alex Amidon’s 69-yard strike from Rettig 19 seconds later.

Boyd scrambled from 6 yards out with 13:44 left to take a 17-14 lead — that was immediately followed by Steward’s strip and Beasley’s score — but the winning drive was set up by the Tigers’ defense pinning BC back.

The Eagles punted from their own 9, and the Tigers only had to go 48 yards for Boyd’s 20th total touchdown of the season.

“It’s good to know,” Swinney said, “we can win a streetfight.”

The next test for Clemson’s surging defense needs no introduction. Venables admitted his players have certainly caught Jameis Winston highlights on SportsCenter or elsewhere, and figures his players will be up to the challenge of Florida State’s redshirt freshman quarterback.

“He’s that freshman freak. He’s like Adrian Peterson at quarterback,” Venables said. “He hasn’t flinched … up to this point.”

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