WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Clemson’s defense continues its search for the dominant form it possessed for much of last season under Brent Venables.
Saturday was a jarring reminder of that.
After showing chinks in their defensive armor against Furman and Louisiana Tech, the Tigers, now under the direction of first-year coordinator Wesley Goodwin, were shredded by one of the nation’s most prolific passing offenses as Wake Forest marched up and down Truist Field with relative ease, adding insult to Clemson’s injuries. Yet the Tigers got a little redemption when they needed it.
Nate Wiggins broke up Sam Hartman’s fourth-down heave to the end zone in double-overtime to preserve Clemson’s 51-45 win in double overtime. But that kind of play, as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney matter-of-factly put it afterward, was far from the norm on a day the Demon Deacons threw for six touchdowns against what was the nation’s No. 89 pass defense coming in, easily a season-high for their veteran quarterback, Sam Hartman.
“We gave up six touchdown passes and we didn’t give up seven,” Swinney said. “That’s the only good thing I can say.”
Clemson was again without safety Andrew Mukuba as well as senior cornerback Sheridan Jones, who sustained a stinger last week against Louisiana Tech. Another veteran corner, Malcolm Greene (undisclosed), also didn’t make the trip, leaving the Tigers’ secondary just as vulnerable as it appeared to be a week earlier even with Wiggins, who was held out last week with a hip flexor, back in action.
Against the second-best passing attack in the ACC, it was a recipe for disaster. Hartman and his big-bodied group of wideouts repeatedly went over the top against the Tigers’ younger-than-usual secondary, connecting for an average of 16.9 yards per reception.
When it was all said and done, Hartman had 337 yards passing, surpassing the 303 passing yards Wake was averaging coming in. He needed just 20 completions to get there.
It was in stark contrast to the way things played out almost a full calendar year ago when Wake visited Clemson. Hartman completed just 62% of his passes in that matchup and threw for most of his yardage after Clemson’s 48-27 win was already well in hand.
Clemson’s pressure up front was a major factor in that runaway victory over the Demon Deacons last November. Clemson lived in the backfield, getting to Hartman for eight sacks and notching 10 tackles for loss. On Saturday, Clemson, even with the return of star defensive tackle tandem Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis, notched just three sacks and six stops behind the line of scrimmage.
“There were some times and pressures where we’ve got to do a better job of just winning our one-on-ones,” Goodwin said. “If we call a six-man pressure, we’ve got guys that we’ve got to win those one-on-one matchups. No doubt.”
Clemson mixed up its looks but dialed up its fair share of pressure from the second and third levels with the front four not generating as much. That often left Wiggins, Fred Davis and true freshmen Toriano Pride and Jeadyn Lukus on an island in coverage, matchups Wake exploited time and time again for chunks of yardage either through explosive completions or five pass-interference penalties drawn by the Demon Deacons’ receivers, which accounted for half of the Tigers’ penalty total.
“I thought we had some tough calls that went against us that gave them some momentum, but it is what it is,” Swinney said. “At the end of the day, we kept battling. I love our guys, and we’ll do a better job getting that cleaned up.”
Wake pieced together seven scoring drives, including four straight in the second half. On a day when Clemson’s offense bailed the defense out with nine scoring drives of its own and an average of 6.5 yards per play, the Demon Deacons averaged 6.6. Wake Forest faced just 12 third downs for the game.
After forcing punts on four of Wake’s first five possessions, the Tigers didn’t come up with many stops other than the ones it had to have. The first came on Wake’s final possession of regulation with the score tied at 38 to push the game to overtime. And after blowing a coverage that left Wake’s 6-foot-5 receiver, A.T. Perry, all alone in the end zone for a score in the first overtime, the decisive one came after Clemson’s final go-ahead score.
Wake’s first two plays of its final possession went nowhere, and Hartman scrambled for 4 yards on third down, leaving the Demon Deacons in need of a fourth-down conversion to extend the game. Hartman went for it all and threw one last deep ball Perry’s way, but, with Clemson running a cover-2 zone, Wiggins dropped with Perry as the underneath corner and came up with the most timely of Clemson’s four pass breakups on the day.
“As a play-caller, you’ve just got to try to scratch where it itches at times,” Goodwin said. “We can’t play the same coverage the whole game. We’ve got to be able to mix and match as well and try to outguess them at times. Not perfect at times, but I can just continue to mix and try to take stress off of guys in crucial situations.”
With wins in their first two ACC games, It helped put the Tigers in the early driver’s seat in the race to return to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. But Saturday also provided the latest evidence that there’s still plenty of work to do if the Tigers are going to get there.
“We made the one play we needed to make,” Swinney said. “None of the rest of it matters obviously other than we’ve got a lot to teach and learn from.”