WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Looking back on it, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware admitted he saw signs pointing toward Clemson’s first loss of the season against Pittsburgh last Saturday.
“I could definitely tell some guys were getting complacent, a little too lackadaisical,” Boulware said. “Especially that Friday night, I was talking to the team, and I could tell everybody was kind of laid back. I think everybody respected Pittsburgh and respected their game plan, but the whole situation, I think guys were just a little too laid back.”
Clemson’s first defeat in two years and first defeat at home in three years erased that complacency and lackadaisicalness, though, and it showed on Saturday in fourth-ranked Clemson’s 35-13 win at Wake Forest that clinched the ACC Atlantic division title for the Tigers and their spot in next month’s ACC title game.
It was especially evident in Clemson’s defense, which allowed only 71 rushing yards, 126 passing yards and 197 total yards of offense.
A week earlier, Clemson surrendered 464 yards, a season-high 308 passing yards and a season-high 43 points in the 43-42 loss to Pitt.
“I felt like we got comfortable. As a defense, you can never get comfortable,” Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said. “You have to always stay hungry, and I felt like we practiced that way this week. We definitely practiced with a chip on our shoulder this week, and it showed.”
Wake Forest redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Kearns replaced usual starter John Wolford, who was held out of action due to an ankle injury, and led an offense that produced its lowest yardage total since the opener against Tulane.
Clemson’s defense forced 10 punts in 13 defensive series, including six three-and-outs, while yielding just nine first downs and an average of 3.6 yards per play.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was pleased with the discipline, positioning and sure tackling his defense displayed overall, and he thought forcing five consecutive punts to begin the game helped the unit develop a rhythm.
“Really pleased,” Venables said. “What was at stake, and it’s a long season. To play at a high level week in and week out is not easy to do, and the preparation and the grind of it is not easy, so really proud of all of our coaches and our players and the way they prepared themselves and had themselves ready to play.”
After outscoring Wake 21-0 in the first quarter, Clemson has outscored its opponents 70-3 on the road in the opening quarter this season.
Clemson finished its second straight regular season with a perfect road record, and the Tigers won their 10th straight road game, the nation’s third-longest active streak behind Alabama and Oklahoma (11).
“I think that speaks volumes to our guys’ mental frame of mind and how they prepare and how they work during the course of the week,” Venables said. “I think that’s a reflection of that.”
Clemson’s offense scored touchdowns on its first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter before a muffed punt by Ray-Ray McCloud in Clemson territory set up Wake’s first points of the game, which came via a 42-yard field goal by Mike Weaver.
Besides that, the only real blemishes for Clemson defensively were a 1-yard touchdown run by Cade Carney in the second quarter, another field goal by Weaver of 23 yards in the third quarter and a pair of 40-plus yard plays that set up those scores.
“Other than that, I think we really dominated,” Boulware said, “so it was a good day.”
One of the bigger but subtler differences in the game was Clemson’s 7-of-15 conversion rate on third downs as opposed to Wake’s 2-of-15 clip.
“We knew they were going to play physical and try to control the clock,” said linebacker Kendall Joseph, who led the defense with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss on his 21st birthday. “We were able to get off on third downs, and it helped us a lot.”
Clemson’s loss last week essentially came without repercussion, as Clemson remained in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings while all of its goals remained in play.
So, the loss provided the perfect teaching opportunity for Clemson, which bounced back on the road to claim its second division title in as many seasons and its fifth in eight seasons under head coach Dabo Swinney.
“Obviously we don’t want to lose, but I think we learned a lot from it,” Boulware said. “A lot of the guys grew from it and realized we’d much rather it happen then than happen in the national championship. So, we wanted to fix those mistakes.”
“We needed that,” Boulware added. “It was a little kick in our rear end, and it kind of got us back on track.”