There is a reason why Clemson had 11 sacks and held No. 13 Auburn to just 117 total yards in Saturday’s 14-6 victory. It’s just that good.
And it’s not just the defensive line, either.
From the defensive front, to the linebackers, to the secondary, the Tigers, who moved up to No. 2 in the Amway Coaches Poll on Sunday, had someone making a play at every level. Auburn, who led the SEC in rushing last year and returned the conference’s top rusher in terms of average per game, ran for just 0.9 yards on 42 attempts. Kamryn Pettway was held to 74 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. The SEC Tigers’ longest run of the game was 15 yards.
Things were not much better in the passing game. Jarrett Stidham, who lit up the Big 12 as a freshman quarterback at Baylor two years ago, was sacked and harassed all night. When he did get a pass off, he completed just 13 of 24 of them for a mere 79 yards. The longest pass was just 23 yards and that came on the third play of the game.
“Everything we get is a total team effort,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “We had some sacks where we got them on our own, just beating guys, but a lot of them were coverage sacks. Those guys on the back seven were really zoned in. They knew it was going to be a tough game for them. They handled their business so it was nice to see that.”
What Clemson’s secondary did to the Auburn passing game might have been the most impressive of the night. They blanketed Auburn’s wide receivers and they did it without two of their veteran players.
Free safety Van Smith missed the whole game due to a knee injury he suffered in last week’s win over Kent State, while cornerback Marcus Edmond—the hero in last year’s wins over Louisville and NC State—was injured on the sixth play of the game and did not return.
But guys like K’Von Wallace, who started in place of Smith, and Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen, along with veteran Ryan Carter, did not miss a beat.
“Auburn is an offense that needs to get chunks,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They kind of live off of chunk plays. Again, we had the two (pass interference penalties) early and that was just poor hand placement. We are in great position. But our hands are up high and we kind of grabbed a little bit. So we bailed them out right there, but outside of that, our coverage on the backend was tremendous.
“Guys were in position. Ryan Carter’s play down the field was a thing of beauty. I’m really proud of K’Von stepping in and starting at safety for us tonight. This is not an easy offense.”
Auburn isn’t an easy offense to prepare for. It puts a lot of pressure on a defense with all of its formations, adjustments, unbalanced line, quick huddles, personnel groupings, motions and shifts.
“There is a lot going on and for a young guy like K’Von to get his first start at safety, Tanner Muse. It was a great challenge for our defense,” Swinney said.
And the defense rose to the challenge as Auburn was held under 150 yards of total offense for just the second time in the last 25 years. Auburn averaged just 1.8 yards per play in 66 snaps.
“At the end of the day, we just won in the trenches,” Swinney said. “The 11 sacks were the second most in school history. Just 117 total yards. We tackled well. Our ends were dominate and the guys inside played outstanding. Our linebackers … all three levels. It was just a very, very good performance and again, that is something we can gain a lot of confidence from.”
They will have to because if they thought Saturday’s game was hard, next week will be even harder as they get set to play Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and No. 14 Louisville, who racked up more than 700 yards in beating North Carolina.