The box score of second-ranked Clemson’s 47-21 win at then-No. 14 Louisville on Saturday doesn’t tell the whole story for the Tigers from a defensive standpoint, at least not in the eyes of head coach Dabo Swinney and All-American defensive lineman Christian Wilkins.
Louisville’s offense, which entered the game averaging 41 points per game and ranked fifth nationally in yards per game (615), was held to a relatively low total of 433 yards including just 116 yards rushing.
Meanwhile, Clemson’s defense shut down Lamar Jackson for the most part. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner had just 180 total yards and a touchdown through three quarters before padding his stats when the game was out of hand. The Tigers pressured Jackson all night, sacking him four times and disrupting the Cardinals offense.
Though there were plenty of positives for Clemson’s defense to take away from Saturday’s game, Swinney called it his team’s worst performance of the season defensively, and Wilkins agreed.
“That’s definitely accurate to say,” Wilkins said. “It’s easy when you’re watching at home and you see the score of the game to just be like oh yeah, great game, and for everyone to think you had such a good performance. But when reality hits and you go back and watch the film and the coaches are grading it, you’re like wow, we really didn’t have that great of a game. I would say at this point, that was definitely the worst game of the three from a defensive standpoint.”
To be fair, the Tigers couldn’t have been much better on defense than they were in the first two games of the season. After allowing just 120 yards to Kent State in the season opener, Clemson allowed even less against Auburn the following week while recording 11 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.
Still, Clemson’s defensive performance against Louisville was far from flawless. Clemson missed 16 tackles, and Swinney said the unit made more mental mistakes in the game than it did in the first two weeks.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables added that had Louisville’s offense executed better, things would have looked a lot different.
“There were a lot of times where our guys were bad,” Swinney said. “The alignments were not good. We were poor with our zone drops. There were just a lot of things. Now we did control the line of scrimmage, but there are things we can do better all the way around. So it is great when you win it because it is a lot more fun to correct those things coming off a win, but we have to play better.”
Wilkins attributed the defense’s errors to a lack of attention to detail and said the Tigers will have to do a better job in their preparation moving forward.
“Just the little details because there was a lot of mental errors and things like that,” Wilkins said. “We played a lot of guys, so just guys throughout the week — whether we’re expecting them to have a huge role or not – they have to really be locked in and dialed in on the details and getting everything right. Just little technical things that guys are going to have to clean up.”
As Swinney said, it’s much easier to address and fix mistakes when those mistakes don’t cost a win.
Wilkins knows the defense didn’t play up to its standard and said it was a humbling performance. At the same time, considering the outcome, he feels encouraged about the potential of his unit moving forward.
“It’s humbling but at the same time it’s encouraging because we were able to do that against a team like that which was really good,” Wilkins said. “So, if we do better and have a really consistent performance and a really good overall grade as a defense, then it’s exciting to see what we’ll be.”