CLEMSON — It would be fair to describe Clemson’s first ACC victory this season as ugly, by normal observational standards.
Not to head coach Dabo Swinney. Specializing in offense his whole life, knowing his program’s bread is buttered by high-scoring matchups, he would take plenty more of those defense-driven wins in a heartbeat.
“Love it. I’ll take 10 more wins like we just had. Sign (me) up right now,” Swinney said. “What do we play, 13 (total), then the bowl game? I’ll take 11 more just like it. Right now. Man, it’s great.”
While there’s mild consternation over what’s relatively wrong with quarterback Tajh Boyd and his tempered start, it’s impossible to wipe that smile off Swinney’s face when he’s asked about this new-and-improved Clemson defense.
Never shy to borrow metaphors from other sports, Swinney compared Thursday’s 26-14 victory at North Carolina State to an ace hurler carrying his team in a pitcher’s duel, or a basketball team struggling with its shooting but relying on lockdown defense to prevail.
One superstar quarterback, bulldozing tailback or blazing wide receiver can make all the difference in an offense; but defense is the truest test of team unity. Of all the figures floating out there, one of the proudest has to be three different players receiving weekly recognition from the Wolfpack win.
Linebacker Spencer Shuey was awarded the Lott Impact honor as the nation’s best defender, for his 11 tackles and recovered fumble.
Fellow linebacker Stephone Anthony (14 tackles) was ACC linebacker of the week, and defensive end Vic Beasley (three sacks) was the league’s co-defensive lineman of the week.
Don’t leave out Grady Jarrett grinding up interior linemen, Shaq Lawson blossoming as a third-down pass-rusher or a suddenly solid secondary … and just like that, Clemson is no longer one-dimensional.
“Obviously, we’ve made a lot of strides in a lot of areas. Still got a long ways to go,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whose next smile he cracks publicly will be the first.
“But I love the attitude of the group of guys; their willingness to fight and handle adversity well. You have to compete, over and over and over for four quarters. If we’ve been consistent about something over the first few games, you’ve seen their willingness to work.”
After a dreadful same-old-Clemson start to the season — Georgia hung 21 points in the first 17 minutes of the opener — the Tigers have allowed six touchdowns (three in garbage time) and no field goals in the 163 minutes of action since.
“It’s a group that’s still trying to find itself,” Venables said. “But you really like the way we’ve been challenged in different ways the first few weeks, and we’ve for the most part answered the bell when it’s counted the most.”
Whether they’re mindful of their past woes or it’s simply in their nature, Clemson defenders have rarely gone out of their way to pump chests or woof at the opponent the way many snarling defenses are wont to do.
“You don’t see people out there dancing around in between snaps,” Shuey said. “We have to take pride in our job and what we do. If there’s something wrong, we have to take that personal and definitely try to correct that and try to be the best we can be as a defense.”
Sooner or later, Clemson’s offense will likely return to its typical frenetic tempo. And Shuey looks forward to that day. But for now, even if defense isn’t sexy, the Tigers aren’t complaining.
“Don’t get me wrong, I definitely love the fact our offense can put up those points, but we take it personally that the recognition kind of dwindled away from us, and we’re trying to earn some of that back,” Shuey said. “We can’t rely on our offense to put up 50 points every game. Sometimes we’re going to have to make those stops to get the team win.”