SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When James Skalski was a junior in high school, one of the things he loved to do was watch Clemson play defense.
In 2014, the Tigers led the nation in total defense, yielding just 260.8 yards per game. They also led the nation in yards per play allowed (4.03) and ranked second in passing defense (157.4 yards per game), third in scoring defense (16.7 points per game) and fifth in rushing defense (103.4 yards per game).
“That’s the reason I came here, not only because of the kind of coach and man Coach (Dabo) Swinney is and the culture he has created, but the kind of coach (Brent) Venables is. I wanted to be a part of that.
“From the outside looking in as a young high school player, seeing them with the number one defense in the country when I was a junior and senior in high school, these just dominant teams. I was like, ‘Dang, man. I want to play for this guy. I want to be a part of something special like this.’”
Skalski and the rest of the Clemson defense has lived up to that standard in 2019. The third-ranked Tigers head into Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl against No. 2 Ohio State with the best defense in 2019, leading the nation in total yards allowed (244.7), scoring (10.6) and passing defense (138.5).
“It’s just been awesome. I think we’re number one overall right now. It’s just been really cool. The whole year feels like a blur. It’s just been really neat to be able to continue a legacy like that.”
How good has Clemson’s defense been this year?
The Tigers (13-0) did not allow a team to get 300 yards or more during the regular season. Virginia finished with just 387 yards to break the streak, but Clemson still won the game 62-17. No team has scored 20 points on the Tigers since South Carolina did it at the end of the 2018 season.
“We don’t stay on the high horse too long. We’re very critical of ourselves and how we play. And that’s something — not a lot of praise for us personally, towards ourselves and towards our performance.
“We’re always trying to get better. No matter how well we play, there’s always something you can get better at. That’s something we really try to focus on, is just being very critical and critiquing ourselves even if it is going very, very well.”
The Tigers will try to live up to that standard on Saturday when they play Ohio State at 8 p.m. (ET) as part of the College Football Playoff Semifinal. It will not be easy considering the Buckeyes lead the nation in scoring offense (48.7 points/game) and fifth in total offense (531.0 yards/game).
“They’re good at everything. They got two Heisman powers on both sides of the ball, a great running game, great offensive line, great quarterback, great receivers,” Skalski said. “There are probably 22 guys on the offense that can all go out there and make plays. They’re very deep, and it’s going to be a big challenge for us. We do not see any weaknesses at all.”
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