Monday Morning Quarterback
In the days leading up to this past Saturday’s game with NC State, the pundits questioned Clemson’s secondary. They wondered how they would stand up to quarterback Ryan Finley, who came into the game leading the ACC in passing yards and yards per game.
Finley was supposed to be the the second-ranked Tigers first real test since they allowed 430 yards to Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond in Week 2. Well, they passed the test with flying colors.
Clemson intercepted Finley twice, while holding him to a season low, 156 yards and no touchdown passes as the Tigers routed the 22nd-ranked Wolfpack at Clemson’s Death Valley.
“I think we have just got into a rhythm with our base defense. You know, things we work on all year,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It has been kind of unique this year for us because three of our first four games were against triple-option teams, teams that really don’t throw the ball a whole lot. It was just a different deal.
“I’m just proud of our guys. To see us improving. We are not turning guys loose and things like that. Guys may make some competitive plays, but we are for the most part positioned where we need to be.”
The Tigers (7-0, 4-0 ACC) are positioned among the best in college football when it comes to passing defense. They rank fifth in passing yards allowed at 158.6 per game and fifth in touchdown passes allowed with five.
Clemson has not allowed a touchdown pass in the last three games and just one in the last five games. Ironically, the last touchdown pass the Tigers allowed came from a triple-option quarterback, Georgia Tech’s Tobias Oliver.
In the last three games, Clemson has recorded four interceptions against Syracuse, Wake Forest and NC State.
“I’m excited about the progress we made,” Swinney said.
Several guys have made progress. Of course, cornerback Trayvon Mullen, as expected, has been lights out all year. He is seldom even thrown on. Though teams keep testing A.J. Terrell on the other side, they are discovering he seldom gives up positioning. He was credited with another broken up pass against NC State and is tied with Mark Fields, who also broke up a pass on Saturday, with four PBUs.
K’Von Wallace, who recorded his third interception against Finley—one in all three meetings against the NC State quarterback—was expected to be the anchor of the secondary and so far, he has lived up to the expectations. Tanner Muse, another veteran player, has continued to progress and is having stellar season at free safety.
Then there are the two guys who Swinney says has really stepped up for the defense – reserve safeties Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson.
“Those were the two guys coming in that we needed to come through for us,” the Clemson coach said. “Those two, I think, have made the most improvement as far as where they were last year to this year.”
Turner and Johnson each had three tackles in helping limit an NC State receiving corps that had put up big numbers in the first five games of the season for the Wolfpack. Coming into the game, three Wolfpack wideouts ranked in the top 10 in the ACC in receptions in Jakobi Meyers, Kelvin Harmon and Emeka Emezie. In terms of receiving yards per game, Harmon led the league with 106.8 yards per game.
The Clemson secondary held Harmon to two catches for 13 yards, while Emezie had just two catches for 12. Meyers did finish the game with eight receptions for 61 yards. However, most came in the second half when Clemson already built a 31-0 lead.
“We are in a good spot with those guys,” Swinney said. “I thought Mark, Trayvon and A.J. did a lot of good things. If I had to say another guy that is the most improved, it would be A.J. Terrell. He is a special talent and a guy that loves to prepare. He and Trayvon are kind of cut from the same mold.
“It is just a really good group all across.”
A group that keeps getting better with each game.