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Gamecocks present tough challenge for Clemson's No. 1 defense

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Gamecocks present tough challenge for Clemson's No. 1 defense

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has the No. 1 defense in the country. (AP Photo/The Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

What sounded like lip service back in March is now tantalizingly close to realistic accomplishment.

All-American defensive end Vic Beasley was one of a few boisterous Tigers at the start of spring practices, proclaiming the 2014 goal for Clemson's senior-laden team defense.

"No. 1. Best defense in the country," Beasley said back on March 7. "We don't want to get scored on. We don't want to give up no points. We want to lead the country in every category."

Eleven games in, with two to go against South Carolina and a bowl foe, that's exactly where Clemson sits: in position to finish as the No. 1 total defense for the second time in school history. Its 252.4 yards allowed per game is seven ahead of Wisconsin, 15 ahead of Penn State and 26 in front of everyone else.

This Saturday will be the first time Clemson takes the field at Memorial Stadium as the No. 1 defense since Nov. 17, 1990, also a home date with South Carolina. (Earlier this month, Clemson was top-ranked at the conclusion of its 34-20 win at Wake Forest Nov. 6, but was bounced two days later by Wisconsin.)

Clemson was allowing 213.8 yards per game going in, and the Gamecocks gained 248 yards as the Tigers prevailed 24-15 and went on to finish No. 1 in defense.

No. 23 Clemson (8-3) will have to protect its No. 1 defensive ranking the hard way, as South Carolina (6-5) is on pace to set school records in points and yardage - and at No. 28 in total offense the Gamecocks are up there with Georgia and Georgia Tech as the most prolific of all Clemson's opponents this year.

"Looking at everything and knowing their personnel, yeah, They have so many elements to their offense that makes this the best offense we've seen this year," senior safety Robert Smith said. "I think Dylan Thompson can be one of the best quarterbacks we've faced this year. They have so many receivers who can do all kinds of different things."

Much as the Tigers have earned respect, the degree of difficulty hasn't been that high.

Georgia Tech (No. 25 in total offense) and Georgia (No. 28) defeated Clemson with ease. Florida State (No. 39) also knocked off the Tigers despite missing quarterback Jameis Winston, and North Carolina (No. 38) gave Clemson a scare with a second-half comeback falling short 50-35.

None of Clemson's other seven opponents rank higher offensively than No. 68 nationally - which, to compare, is lower than the Tigers' own No. 64 offensive ranking despite numerous injuries and struggles.

With all that in mind, those lesser opponents have been made to look silly in Death Valley. Other than the second half vs. UNC, Clemson has yielded three offensive touchdowns in 83 series at home this fall.

"It's very real now that it's the end of the season and it's exciting to be able to go in as the No. 1 defense," senior linebacker Tony Steward said. "Obviously, our goal is to end as the No. 1 defense also. So we're gonna play fast and have fun Saturday."

As a reminder, that tentative No. 1 ranking arrives less than three years after the 70-33 Orange Bowl drubbing which cost coordinator Kevin Steele his job.

"It's built a great sense of pride, and awareness of why it's important to do all the little things well and do them consistently," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "I think they're proud of building a culture and leaving a legacy."

At any given time when the starters are on duty, Clemson rolls out eight or nine seniors - including the entire defensive line and its top two linebackers.

So are the Tigers built to last next year on defense, with just three returning starters in cornerback Mackensie Alexander, safety Jayron Kearse and nickel back Korrin Wiggins?

"We're playing a bunch of young guys, too," Venables said. "Just go down the list of guys: (defensive linemen) Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins, you look at (linebackers) Ben Boulware, Dorian O'Daniel, B.J. Goodson and Kellen Jones, then at corner Cordrea Tankersley, (safeties) Jadar Johnson and T.J. Green.

"I ran out of fingers and toes counting underclassmen that have played not just a part, but a critical part in our success. So to answer your question, yes."

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