By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
If the Clemson defense wasn’t reeling, it sure looked that way.
After forcing a three-and-out on Georgia’s first possession, the Tigers allowed touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With 13:16 remaining in the second quarter, the Bulldogs scored to take a 21-14 advantage. They had gained 267 yards on only 25 plays.
Then something clicked for Clemson, and the Tiger D subjected the Bulldog offense to 13 minutes of hell.
The next time Georgia had the football, Vic Beasley sacked Aaron Murray—the first of four times Murray would be sacked on the night—to force a punt. Then Stephone Anthony sacked Murray deep in Clemson territory, knocked the ball out, and watched as Spencer Shuey recovered it to give the Tigers the football deep in Georgia territory.
Georgia’s next possession netted just one yard before the Bulldogs were forced to punt. Then after a muffed punt gave Georgia prime field position, Corey Crawford intercepted a Murray pass on a zone blitz. On the next-to-last play of the first half, Tavaris Barnes got into the act with a punishing sack on Murray.
The Tigers only scored once during the stretch, but a shift in the narrative occurred as halftime approached. Suddenly, the Clemson defense was setting the tone—a job both teams’ offenses were supposed to do. It was a tone that carried into the second half and throughout the rest of the game.
“We just kind of got hot there,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We got in a rhythm.”
“It really wasn’t a change in our plan or anything,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We just finally got it all together and got it rolling.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the success of Clemson’s defense was the difference in yardage allowed once the quarter flipped. After allowing the third straight touchdown, the Tigers allowed only 17 yards on 14 plays for the rest of the half. They continued that stretch by holding Georgia to a loss of one on its first possession of the third quarter.
The Tiger offense scored on its next possession to take a 28-21 lead, and they never trailed again.
“Our guys were a huge part of the reason why we won the game,” Venables said. “They’ve got a lot to be proud of. They got enough stops to get it done.”
Venables’ defense began to control the game when the Tigers started winning the battles at the line of scrimmage. Jarrett says the game was won in the trenches against a big, physical Georgia offensive line—not to mention the feared Gurshall tandem at running back—that was supposed to impose its will against the Tiger defensive front.
“I think we got consistent pressure,” Venables said. “They poked a couple of long runs in there, but other than that, I don’t think they were consistently able to establish the line of scrimmage.”
Part of establishing the line of scrimmage is about having a controlled pass rush. Beasley says it is especially important when facing quality tailbacks like the Bulldogs have.
He also added that applying a little pressure may have given the Tigers the edge before the ball was snapped throughout the contest.
“You have to have a pre-snap read. They were really selling themselves the whole night, the tackles were. That’s how I was able to get off the ball a lot.”
Pointing to one specific defensive play as the most important for the Tigers is difficult. Beasley’s sack, Anthony’s forced fumble, Crawford’s interception, Barnes’ sack—all of them contributed to a sense of respect that formed for Clemson’s defense in the second quarter.
If things go as expected after the Tigers passed their first test in the national spotlight this season, that 13-minute stretch may end up defining a special season very early in the schedule.