ORLANDO, Fla. – The passing of Clemson’s defensive torch from Brent Venables to his much lesser-known right-hand man has been well-documented over the last few weeks.
Without that tidbit of information, though, you likely would’ve never suspected anything had changed.
Because there Clemson’s defense was, being its usual stingy self against a team the Tigers had literally never seen in person before their Cheez-It Bowl matchup Wednesday at Camping World Stadium. Iowa State came in with the Big 12’s leading passer in veteran quarterback Brock Purdy, and while he may not have had his full artillery of weapons there to help – All-American running back Breece Hall opted out of the game while Iowa State’s leading receiver, Xavier Hutchinson, wasn’t much of a factor with a broken thumb – the Cyclones looked like most offenses have this season against Venables’ defense.
Only it’s not Venables’ defense anymore.
At least not in a leadership sense. With Venables off to run his own program at Oklahoma, Wesley Goodwin called the plays for the first time as Clemson’s new defensive coordinator. Before getting that promotion, Goodwin was Clemson’s senior defensive assistant, though that, of course, only begins to tell the story.
“Everyone counted our defense out because they thought Coach V was gone, but we’ve got Wes and coach (co-defensive coordinator Mickey) Conn,” senior cornerback Mario Goodrich said, who was named game MVP. “They’ve been here a while, and everybody has got faith in them.”
It’s hard to find anybody that doesn’t when it comes to Goodwin’s intellectual ability on a football field or in a meeting room. This is, after all, the same person that then-Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hired away from Clemson in 2015 to be his personal assistant before Clemson coach Dabo Swinney brought him back a few years later. Other NFL teams have tried to hire him and his football acumen since then.
But amid suddenly lofty expectations given the way those inside and outside of Clemson’s program gush about him, Goodwin was in charge of his own defense for the first time Wednesday. If his debut as Swinney’s new defensive play caller didn’t meet the hype, it came awfully close.
“Really proud of Wes,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Clemson’s defense wasn’t at full strength either. The Tigers were without safety Nolan Turner (foot injury) and linebacker Baylon Spector (hand surgery). Then fellow linebacker James Skalski left in the first half with an injury and never returned, and likely first-round draft pick Andrew Booth later did the same.
Yet the Tigers held Iowa State to 270 total yards and made Purdy, who just finished playing his 48th and final game in a Cyclone uniform, look average. Clemson held Iowa State’s veteran signal caller to a 59% completion rate with as many interceptions (1) as he had scoring tosses, which accounted for Iowa State’s lone touchdown.
The Cyclones’ other seven points came on the right foot of kicker Andrew Mevis as the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense held Iowa State to two fewer points than it allowed on average during the regular season. The Cyclones mustered just 14 first downs and 4.5 yards per play.
Problem was, Clemson’s offense largely looked the same, too. The Tigers averaged more than 36 points in the final five games of the regular season, but a unit that’s dealt with inconsistency and attrition all season scored just 13 points itself, never allowing Clemson to comfortably pull away.
The Tigers took their largest lead at 20-3 on a touchdown from Goodwin’s unit when Goodrich intercepted a batted ball and housed it late in the third quarter, but D.J. Uiagalelei’s tipped-ball interception on Clemson’s next possession got the Cyclones right back in business. Clemson was able to hold the Cyclones to a field goal on the short field, but Petty’s 6-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Charlie Kolar with 9 minutes, 42 seconds put Goodwin and his group to the test.
“We had one mistake down there on the touchdown, and I loved the call,” Swinney said. “(Goodwin) brought the house and went after them, and we had a young guy out there that thought he had inside help on Cover 0.”
The offense couldn’t extend the lead again, so Iowa State had two chances in the final 6:55 to march for the tying score. Starting that first drive at their own 3, the Cyclones mustered just 8 yards on six plays before punting. Their final drive started at the 11 with 1:52 remaining and ended 26 yards later when Goodrich punched the ball away from Purdy, who initially had more than the 2 yards he needed on a fourth-down run to extend the drive. But the fumble went backward and was short of a first down by the time Purdy got to it for the recovery.
“As soon as they jumped on the ball, it was over with because you saw it was well short of the first-down marker,” Goodwin said. “Just excitement that we closed it out.”
Swinney gave Goodwin an A+ for the work he did not only in the moment Wednesday but also for the nearly month-long preparation leading up to the game following Venables’ departure. It’s a high grade that Goodwin won’t soon forget.
“It was like I just put those headphones on, and I was in the moment,” Goodwin said. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had at a football game. It was fun in the moment just coaching in those situations, making adjustments and being the guy.”
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