By Will Vandervort.
Before the regular season-finale against South Carolina there was a question whether or not Clemson was truly an elite defense.
Though the 18th-ranked Tigers led the nation in total defense and ranked in the top 10 nationally in nine other categories, outside fan bases and media questioned those numbers primarily because of who they were playing.
There was something to their argument, seven of Clemson’s 11 opponents at the time ranked below 50th nationally in total offense. So when the Gamecocks came to town with their high-powered offense and the Ol’ Ball Coach—Steve Spurrier—calling plays, people wondered if the Tigers could have the same amount of success they have had all year.
“This was one of the more elite offenses in the country and we performed really well,” Clemson defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said.
Clemson’s defense just didn’t perform well, it dominated the Gamecocks in its 35-17 victory. The Tigers held USC to 339 total yards – 122 yards below its season average. South Carolina’s 17 points and 63 rushing yards were both season lows.
“We have great respect for what they do and how they have done it,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They have done it for a long time and have had great success and terrific players on that side of the ball.
“But we also were very confident going in.”
The Tigers (9-3) sacked USC quarterback Dylan Thompson four times, forced a fumble that Clemson recovered and pressured him all day.
“They have all of those weapons on offense so you have to get pressure on him and mess up his timing,” Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams said. “We did that with good play calling and us getting in the backfield.”
Running back Mike Davis—one of the SEC’s best—was held to 39 rushing yards, while big-play wide receiver Pharoh Cooper was held to two receptions for 45 yards.
“We started to dominate at the line of scrimmage and in the run game and we put them in some predictable situations,” Venables said. “We were pretty active up front and those guys were able to rush the passer. When we got them behind the changes like we did at times, then those things are going to happen.
“Winning the line of scrimmage was a big part of it. Pressuring him, even when we did not get to him, was huge. There were a lot of throw aways as well. We were close all day.”
Holding USC to 17 points was even more impressive than people might think, especially the way the Tigers did it. Following a Cole Stoudt interception just before the end of the first half, which was returned deep into Clemson territory, the defense held the Gamecocks to three points.
In the third quarter, USC had a first-and-goal at the Clemson two, but failed to score and then were held again on fourth down on its next possession from the Tigers’ 30-yard line.
“They got the ball in good territory and we held them to three points right before the half when it looked like they were going to score,” Williams said. “We knew if we could stop them and hold them to three, we were good.
“Those fourth-down stops, when it looked like they were going to score, they were turnovers. They are like turnovers for us.”
In the end, Clemson did to South Carolina what it has done to everyone. It didn’t matter if the competition was good or bad offensively, the common denominator was the Tigers’ relentless nature on defense.
They held 10 of their 12 opponents below their season average for total offense. Seven of those 10 were held to 264 or less total yards and five of those seven were held below 155 yards of total offense.
“There is no arguing how good we are anymore,” Jarrett said. “We can tell we are an (elite) defense by the way we play on film and the intensity we play with. We know how good of a defense we are.”
How good is Clemson’s defense?
The Tigers lead the nation in total defense (259.6 yds/gm), first in tackles for loss (122), second in third down defense (28.1 %), second in plays allowed of 10 or more yards (113), second in first downs allowed (14.0 /gm), fourth in passing defense (161.9 yds/gm), fifth in pass efficiency defense (103.1), fifth in sacks (44) and seventh in scoring defense (17.6 points/gm).
“Time after time they have responded in critical situations, but I’m not surprised because I have seen them do it a lot,” Venables said.
And that is what an elite defense does, no matter who it is playing.