By Hale McGranahan.
Don’t count Brent Venables among those who believe Clemson’s defense did enough to beat South Carolina in 2013.
Though the Tigers managed to limit the Gamecock run game to 140 yards and 2.8 yards per carry, there were a few other areas from last November’s game that stuck in Venables’ craw.
“A year ago, we defended the run pretty well, but we didn’t create the kind of pressure that we needed up front, whether we’re blitzing guys or just rushing four, you’ve got to beat guys,” Venables said. “You’ve got to win 1-on-1 matchups. Teams that have beaten them this year, that’s one thing that they’ve done, they’ve won their share of 1-on-1 battles at the right time.”
He added, “There’s plenty we could have done that would have helped us win that game. We weren’t good enough a year ago on defense. In critical situations, when we could get the ball back, we didn’t. They made the competitive plays, played better than us on third-down. We didn’t have the discipline on fourth-and-1. We didn’t handle adversity good enough and still had a chance to win late, so there’s a lot to learn from it.
“We’ve got to play better this year than we did a year ago. As a football team and as well as on defense, we need to play much better than we did last year. Every year has its different challenges and the strength of this team is their offense, with the balance they’ve had both running and throwing.”
For Steve Spurrier, it all starts with wide receive/wildcat quarterback/punt returner Pharoh Cooper, who’s accounted for 921 yards receiving, 180 yards rushing, 65 punt return yards and 51 passing yards. The sophomore from Havelock, North Carolina has also caught nine touchdown passes, thrown two scores and rushed for another.
Clutch was one adjective Venables used to describe Cooper. He knows from experience. With 3:44 left to play in Columbia last season, Cooper connected with Brandon Wilds on a 26-yard touchdown pass, to ice South Carolina’s 31-17 win over Clemson.
“He’s a terrific player that’s been really successful in the short amount of time he’s been there,” Venables said. “I love how competitive he is. He plays with great humility, great toughness as well, plays strong and has great hands. He’s what you would call a feature guy.”
Spurrier knows a thing or two about putting the ball in his best players’ hands — he’s been doing it for 25 years. The Head Ball Coach has amassed a record of 272-125-2 as a head coach at Tampa Bay (USFL), Duke, Florida, Washington (NFL) and South Carolina.
Saturday’s game will be the 400th of his career.
“He’s had great success throughout his career. He has a great mind for the game. He puts his players in good position to be successful,” Venables said. “And it’s worked a heck of a lot more than it’s not with schemes and what have you. He’s done a great job with (South Carolina). It’s a program that’s not used to winning, but since he’s been there they’ve won a lot. He does a great job of managing their offense — aggressive, but smart.”
Best known for his fun-and-gun style of offense, Spurrier hasn’t been afraid to ride the run game during his last few years at South Carolina. This season is no different. In addition to the success with Cooper in the wildcat, Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds have rushed for 888 and 556 yards, respectively. They’ve also combined to score 13 touchdowns on the ground.
“They’re precise with what they’re doing,” Venables said. “They know who they’re targeting. They’re physical. They run down hill, even from the shotgun, they run down hill. They get those tight ends in there and get them involved as well. Shoot, they’ll put Pharoh Cooper in there as a wing and help block a d-end, run the inside zone right at him, and with great success.
“Being physical in the run game is something they believe in. It’s something they’re committed to and have great success in their offense as a result.”
For most of the last two seasons, that’s where the Clemson defense has hung its hat — stopping the run. Through 11 games, the Tigers are seventh in the country in run defense, giving up an average of 100.82 yards per game.
Just stopping the run doesn’t necessarily equate to winning. See last year, for example.
“It still comes down to execution,” Venables said. “And if you’re good enough.”