Seeing red: Clemson's defense at its best when the field shrinks

Seeing red: Clemson's defense at its best when the field shrinks

Football

Seeing red: Clemson's defense at its best when the field shrinks

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Connecticut found itself close to the kind of success many teams haven’t had against Clemson’s defense late in the teams’ game at Memorial Stadium last week.

Brian Brewton prefaced the Huskies’ final possession of the game with a 76-yard kickoff return that put UConn at Clemson’s 24-yard line. Sheridan Jones’ personal foul put UConn into the red zone, and the Huskies moved to the Tigers’ 5 on the ensuing play. Clemson (7-3, 5-2) thwarted the threat, though, pushing the Huskies back 2 yards on their final three snaps to hold UConn without an offensive point in the Tigers’ 44-7 rout.

Given the Tigers were playing their reserves in a 37-point game, it didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. But it kept an impressive trend going for the defense, which has been the best in the country with its collective back against the wall.

It was the 23rd time an opponent has reached the red zone this season against the Tigers. Yet almost as many of those trips have left the opposition empty-handed as the ones that haven’t. Only 56.6% of the time have teams come away with points against Clemson after reaching the Tigers’ 20-yard line or farther, the lowest clip in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Even when those trips have been successful, teams have more often had to settle for three points rather than six. Of the 13 red-zone scores Clemson has allowed through 10 games, seven of them have been field goals, which has contributed to the Tigers’ third-ranked scoring defense nationally.

“It gives you a chance to win most games if you can win in the red zone, and we’ve been fortunate to be pretty good there,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. 

UConn’s final possession was the only time the Huskies got that close to scoring six against the Tigers, but there have been other instances where Clemson has come through in more pressurized situations.

The week before, with Clemson clinging to a 30-24 lead late, Louisville had the Tigers on the ropes with one last drive that reached Clemson’s 2 in just five plays. The Cardinals didn’t net anything on their next three snaps, and the drive ended with linebacker James Skalski and company chasing down Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham for a sack on fourth-and-goal to preserve the win.

It was a sequence reminiscent of Clemson’s 14-8 win over Georgia Tech in the third week of the season, one in which the Yellow Jackets had four cracks from the Tigers’ 3 in the final minute. Skalski was in on two of the next three tackles before sniffing out Tech’s shovel pass to tight end Dylan Deveney on fourth-and-goal.

“I think it’s just will. A will to keep people out of the end zone,” Skalski said. “I’ve been a part of countless goal-line stands now since I’ve been here, which is pretty cool. It’s just a bunch of guys in the huddle together kind of talking to each other like, ‘They’re not getting in this end zone.’ And that’s kind of what we did.”

Two weeks later, the defense was at it again when Boston College threatened for a go-ahead score in the final 2 minutes. The Eagles drove to Clemson’s 11 before an incompletion brought up second down, but K.J. Henry shot into the backfield on the next snap to pounce on quarterback Daniel Grosel’s muffed snap turned fumble, a recovery that iced a 19-13 win for the Tigers. Clemson limited Boston College to one touchdown on its four red-zone trips.

Will is one thing, but Venables said he believes his unit’s preparation for those moments in practice also has something to do with just how stingy the defense has been the more the field shrinks. The fact the defense has been able to bow up more often than not only adds to the group’s confidence each time it finds itself in that kind of situation, he said.

“There’s a lot to it mentally and structurally,” Venables said. “I think the most important element, though, is belief, attitude, toughness and physicality. The fundamentals will show up under pressure down there for sure.”

It’ll be strength against strength Saturday when the Tigers close out their home slate against No. 10 Wake Forest (9-1, 6-0), which has been one of the nation’s best offenses all season in every part of the field. The Demon Deacons are scoring the second-most points in the FBS and own the nation’s seventh-most successful red-zone offense (93.8% conversion rate). Only 10 teams nationally have made more red-zone trips than Wake’s 48, and 34 of those have reached the end zone.

Clemson’s defense is as well prepared as any should it find itself in that predicament again come Saturday.

“It can really give you a lot of confidence in everything you’re doing and validates the toughness, the discipline and the never-say-quit attitude you’ve got to have when your back’s against the wall,” Venables said.

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