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Wilkins: Syracuse presents unique challenge

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Clemson’s defensive line has mustered more pressure this season than almost any team in the country. The Tigers are tied for third in the nation with 31 sacks and tied for third nationally with 73 tackles for loss, led by do-it-all defensive end Christian Wilkins, who leads the team with 10 tackles for loss and is third on the team with 3.5 sacks.

Coming off of a win at Florida State in which Clemson flustered the Seminoles by sacking quarterback Deondre Francois six times and notching 10 tackles for loss, getting pressure against Syracuse’s offense on Saturday will be a more difficult challenge.

Syracuse’s attack is predicated on a quick passing game, and the Orange will attempt to slow Clemson’s pass rush by getting the ball out of quarterback Eric Dungey’s hands quickly.

“It’s really a unique challenge because like you said, their quarterback gets the ball and it’s out of his hands before he can barely get out of his stance,” Wilkins said this week. “That’s a pretty good game plan on their part, and it’s going to be tough to provide pressure, but the DBs are going to have to do a good job in coverage to give us another second to really get pressure on the quarterback.”

Much like Clemson, Syracuse features an up-tempo offense under its first-year head coach Dino Babers and attempts to wear opposing defenses down. After running an average of 62.9 plays per game in 2015, Syracuse has averaged 86.7 plays per game this season.

“They run a lot of plays a game, so we’re really going to have to stress ourselves this week in practice,” Wilkins said, “making sure our conditioning is on point because running 80 to 100 plays, that’s not easy to defend.”

Wilkins discussed Syracuse’s offense, the win over Florida State, the first College Football Playoff rankings and more during his interview with the media on Tuesday. An edited transcript of the interview follows:

Question: Can you take us through the final drive at Florida State when you stopped the offense and clinched the win?

Wilkins: “We were just really motivated. We knew that we had a chance to seal the deal earlier in the game and we didn’t do that, but then the offense did their job and scored in like a minute. And it was our time. The offense did their part, and we were all just talking amongst ourselves as a defense, now it’s our turn. We have to finish the job. We have to get this stop for the team. We were just able to pull it together, get a few sacks, force them to jump offsides two times in a row — which was really big, took them out of field goal range. We just made the plays when we needed to.”

Q: Did you feel like you all were getting in their offensive linemen’s heads?

Wilkins: “I feel like it’s safe to say that. Why else were they jumping offsides twice in a row, and then at that point there were a couple of holding calls. That late in the game, they were making some critical mistakes that cost their team, and I feel like we do a good job as a defense bringing pressure and just playing physical. We posed a challenge for their offensive line all game.”

Q: The first College Football Playoff rankings (are out). Are you going to pay attention to it, and what does it mean right now?

Wilkins: “I have no choice but to pay attention to it. I’m not going to go out of my way, but I’m sure I’ll know what’s happening, what’s going on. There’s no way to really avoid it, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me, doesn’t really mean anything now after eight games. So, you can’t really pay attention to it. Just keep playing every game and focusing every game and preparing as hard as you can to win every game.”

Q: How nice was it to see Austin Bryant have a couple of sacks, and how big is it to have him back in the rotation?

Wilkins: “It’s really important. I’m really excited for him, and I’m glad he’s back. It adds more depth to our D-line, another guy we can throw out there who has played a good amount of football and can get his job done. I was jumping up and down when he got that sack, laid a good hit on Francois. I’m really happy for him. I’m glad he’s back with us, and he seems to be back to his game. It’s funny how quick he got back into it. He’s only played two games after missing six of them, so it’s good that’s he’s back and can help us.”

Q: After your performance through eight games, how nice is it to be on some All-American lists at this point?

Wilkins: “It’s a nice honor. I’m happy that my accomplishments and everything I’m doing is being acknowledged, but at the same time my job isn’t done. Everything I want to accomplish at Clemson and everything I want to accomplish this season, as a team and individually, we haven’t reached those goals. So, I’m still going to work every day, work every practice and prepare as hard as I can. I don’t care about the individual acknowledgements more than I do the team. I’ll take an ACC championship and a national championship over the Heisman. None of that other stuff really matters to me.”

Q: What’s your general takeaway from this last month with how crazy some of the wins have been? Have you ever experienced a stretch like that with three of the four victories coming down to the end?

Wilkins: “I haven’t, but it’s great for our team because we’re battle-tested now. We know how to win close games. We know how to go get it when we need it. Obviously it doesn’t really matter when you win the game — you won the game, it doesn’t matter how many points you win by — but sometimes it’s good to get a blowout win and just relax a little bit more and not have so much stress late in the game. But as long as we win, I’m happy.”

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