The last time Duke had to face a Clemson defense led by defensive coordinator Brent Venables came six years ago.
At the time, Venables was in his first year at Clemson and was still feeling things out at Clemson and did not quite have the kind of players his style of defense requires. However, that does not mean he took it easy on David Cutcliffe’s offense on that cold November night in Durham, N.C., back in 2012.
The Tigers, who will host Duke Saturday at 7 p.m., at Death Valley, held the Blue Devils to 342 total yards, including 85 yards rushing in a 56-20 victory. The 342 yards allowed was the third lowest total for the Clemson defense that year as it was just starting to take shape under Venables.
Now, six years later, the Tigers have one of the best defensive units in the country, leading the nation in scoring defense (12.7 points/game) and yards per rush (2.1), while ranking second in total defense (253.6 yards/game), yards per play (3.83) and tackles for loss (99).
In all, the Tigers rank in the top 10 in just about every defensive category at the national level, including third in rushing defense (82.3 yards/game), sacks (36) and ninth in passing defense (171.3).
“I think they’ve continued to improve physically,” Cutcliffe said. “I think Venables has a system in place that veteran players have really embraced. They do a lot of different things and they do them well. They were aggressive then. But I think this is a completely different level of Clemson defense.”
The Tigers (10-0, 7-0 ACC) lead the ACC in scoring, rushing and total defense, while also leading the league in sacks and yards allowed per rush and per play. They also rank second in pass defense and tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
In last week’s win over Boston College, second-ranked Clemson held the Eagles to 113 total yards, it marked the seventh time this season the Tigers have held the opposition under 300 yards and it is the third time they failed to reach 200 yards of offense.
The Eagles had just nine yards rushing, the sixth time a team failed to get over the century mark on the ground. Clemson also had 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in the 20-point win. It was another dominating performance by its defense.
Duke (7-3, 3-3 ACC) will try and counter with quarterback Daniel Jones, who put up 547 total yards against North Carolina last week, including 186 rushing yards, a record for a Duke quarterback.
“Well, it always helps to have a veteran quarterback. He can have a settling effect,” Cutcliffe said. “We do have some veteran players on offense. That will help.”
Jones is mostly known for his ability to throw the football, not run it. Though he has rushed for 327 yards this year and is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, he ranks third in the ACC in passing yards per game (243.5). He is fourth in completion percentage (61.0) and fourth in touchdown passes (16).
However, Cutcliffe indicated Jones has not accomplished any of that against the kind of defense he will see on Saturday at Death Valley.
“The defense we’re looking at is a whole different thing,” Cutcliffe said. “So, they’re really difficult, but there’s no question that a veteran can help not only on the field, but in the preparation and just we’re counting on our leadership to help control those young folks’ emotions.
“And sometimes it takes a little while to get through that, the opening quarter even can be a jolt to a lot of young players. But somewhere in there we will settle down, I believe.”