With the football resting at his own 46-yard line, Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers felt confident when he dropped back to pass with the score tied, 3-3, early in the second quarter against second-ranked Clemson.
The Trojans were a heavy underdog, and for one quarter they had already went toe-to-toe with the defending ACC Champions. Could this be the day when the little guy knocks off the powerhouse team in their own backyard?
For just a little bit, Silvers had to be thinking that as released the ball to his intended receiver, who was dragging across the field 10 yards up. But the Troy quarterback did not see Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph dropping back into coverage. Joseph easily snagged the pass, setting his own offense up in good field position.
“You look at Kendall’s, that was just a textbook pulling a three-deep zone coverage and he did a great job feeling the over route and sliding underneath it and relating to the route as the route moved,” Clemson defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Venables said.
It was the Tigers’ second interception of the day, both coming from a linebacker as Jalen Williams intercepted a Silvers’ pass off a deflection by defensive end Christian Wilkins. Later in the game, Dorian O’Daniel became the third linebacker to pick off a pass as Silvers threw it right into his belly.
In all, the Tigers (2-0) have five interceptions in two games, and four of those five have come from their linebackers. Ben Boulware picked off a fourth-quarter pass in Clemson’s win at Auburn on Sept. 3.
“I think they are improving in their knowledge in their experience in their underneath coverage. They have benefited from some tipped balls as well,” Clemson defensive coordinator and linebacker’s coach Brent Venables said.
Boulware’s interception against Auburn in Week 1 was the fifth of his career.
“Boulware’s was just awesome,” Venables said. “It was another-textbook zone coverage where he did exactly what he practiced, and they ran the exact route that he practiced under that situation … here it comes and he did a great job.”
The interception was very reminiscent of Boulware’s pick in the Tigers’ Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma in last year’s College Football Playoff. In each case he stepped in front of a pass near the goal line when the quarterback thought he had a guy coming open in the end zone.
“We start every practice with ball drills for the whole team, and I think catching is more natural than it was probably three or four years ago before we started doing that,” Venables said.
Though Boulware and Joseph’s interceptions were due to textbook defense, Williams’ and O’Daniel’s were the products of being at the right place at the right time. In both cases, Wilkins pressured the quarterback and either caused or forced the errant throw.
“Christian forced them to throw it Dorian’s belly there. They had a little screen play set up and Christian is smoking off the edge and you would throw it away, too,” Venables said jokingly. “Then Jalen had the tip ball and I think that was from Christian, too. So they have benefited from good defensive line play.”
And they are making the plays, which is why Clemson has forced six turnovers in two games.