By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush.
For weeks, there has been a certain sentiment bubbling beneath the surface regarding No. 22 Clemson’s defense, a question that almost seems outrageous to ask of a unit.
Is this year’s version of the Tiger defense the best ever?
A strong case can be made following Saturday’s 28-0 victory over Georgia State. Those in attendance who witnessed bygone eras of Tiger football might have thought they were watching a Danny Ford-coached defense swarm to make plays with the intent of killing the will of an opponent.
It was the second shutout of the season for these Tigers, and it very easily could have been the third if not for a late-game fumble return courtesy of South Carolina State in a September game that seems eons ago.
The 2014 season represents the first occasion since 1998—an otherwise regrettable season that ended with a coaching change—that the Tigers have recorded multiple shutouts. Defensive tackle Deshawn Williams says the ability to hold opponents to a goose egg stems from a mentality he and his teammates have worked hard to cultivate.
“The defense is not going to let in a bunch of points,” Williams said. “We’re going to be stingy. You’re going to have to earn everything you’re going to get.”
The Panthers earned very little in front of 77,000-plus purple-clad fans in Memorial Stadium on Saturday. They allowed only 155 yards and ten first downs in beating Georgia State into submission. Such a dominant effort will almost assuredly put the Tigers atop the NCAA rankings in total defense heading into an intrastate rivalry showdown that it may take a debilitating defensive output to win.
“You appreciate their effort and the end result, a byproduct of doing all of the other things that it takes to play well,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I’m really pleased with that.”
Some of Venables’ players were more dismissive of the shutout. They see Saturday’s game as a means rather than an end, a tune-up designed to prepare the football team for a more meaningful challenge seven days into the future.
“We’ve pretty much put this one out the window already,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “We’re trying to get a head start and get in there and take care of the Gamecocks next week.”
Linebacker Stephone Anthony was more forceful in his assessment of the team’s next assignment. As a senior like Williams and several other key contributors on defense, he realizes his final shot to knock the Gamecocks off of their Palmetto perch comes in short order.
Even with a chance to dwell on an unheard-of second shutout, he refuses to do so. He knows there are bigger things ahead.
“We need to move on,” Anthony said. “It’s time to get this one. We need to get this one coming up.”
Clemson teams are often defined primarily by the final game of the regular season, often to the detriment—or even outright exclusion—of a year’s worth of accomplishments. The Clemson defense has a chance to make nights like Saturday in a season of suffocation stick in the minds of fans, to validate the 2014 campaign forever with one final masterpiece that can cement a legacy.