The bad news for Clemson’s defense coming off last week’s performance against Furman is that the lone FCS opponent on the Tigers’ schedule made moving the ball look rather easy against what is widely considered the team’s strength.
The good news? Defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin and his players believe all of the missteps are easily correctable.
“It’s just a lot of fixable stuff,” defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro said.
Clemson beat Furman 35-12 over the weekend, though it’s a game that could’ve been tighter had the Tigers’ offense not been as efficient early with touchdowns on five of its first six possessions. Furman outgained the Tigers 384-376 in total yards, averaged more than 5 yards per play and dominated time of possession (34:45 to 25:15) by converting 10 of its 18 third-down opportunities.
But Goodwin echoed Orhorhoro’s sentiment that the Tigers’ defensive miscues aren’t shortcomings that can’t be shored up rather quickly.
“Just clean up technique issues here and there,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin was primarily referencing Clemson’s pass defense, which was the crux of the issue. The Tigers yielded just 3.7 yards per rush, an area in which Orhorhoro said he felt like the defense performed well. But Furman averaged nearly 9 yards per completion as quarterback Tyler Huff completed better than 77% of his passes (31 of 40).
Furman had plenty of long gainers of the catch-and-run variety, particularly screen passes the Paladins hit with receivers and running backs against an overly aggressive defensive front, a blitz or a combination of the two.
“A couple of times, we didn’t hug the back in man coverage,” Goodwin said. “We have a pressure called, and you’re coming free for a reason. Slam on the brakes and react. Had a wrap blitz one time, and we’ve got to fill it as the wrapper. So those are the big things.”
After the defense got burned on those plays multiple times, Orhorhoro said he didn’t need Monday’s postgame film session to know what went wrong. He added the defensive line as a whole has to be better at recognizing when they’re getting an open lane to the quarterback, usually a telltale sign that a screen pass is coming.
“When you come too free, you just need to be like, ‘All right, something’s wrong,’” Orhorhoro said. “The quarterback’s retreating, and I came too free. I’ve got to put my foot in the ground, turn around, try to find the running back and find the ball.”
Said Goodwin, “Obviously when you’re an aggressive front, people are going to screen you to death. So we’ve just got to clean up our techniques and continue to apply them in all situations.”
As for the struggle getting Furman’s off the field on third down, Goodwin said it didn’t help that the Paladins were able to stay ahead of the chains more often than not and set themselves up with manageable second and third downs. But players and coaches also lamented some loose coverage that Clemson’s secondary played with on the back end.
“I saw on a lot of those screen plays that they ran, it was just (the pass-catcher) was wide open by himself,” cornerback Malcolm Greene said. “And with the coverages that we’ve got, all of our guys in the back seven have some responsibility. Everybody. So to see a guy wide open in a zone where you know somebody should be on him, it was really rough.”
Clemson is preparing for another heavy dose of the passing game Saturday from Louisiana Tech, which has implemented its share of air-raid principles under first-year coach Sonny Cumbie, a member of the Mike Leach coaching tree. It gives Clemson’s defense a chance to immediately redeem itself.
“We just want to come out there and make sure we have a great focus for this week,” Greene said. “And that we understand this is the next game, and that’s our biggest game.”
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