Clemson has something to build on after season-opening win over AU
Clemson's defense had to improve, or it didn't matter how good the offense was
Its season-opening victory over Auburn was a good step in the right direction
Improved defensive play gives Clemson another chance at a special season
ATLANTA -- Clemson defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks posted the sign in his group's meeting room about three weeks ago. At first, his players were taken aback. Gradually, they understood why Brooks chose those two particular words.
Brooks referred specifically to his position group, but the sign could have easily described the entire defense. Of course the Tigers can score. They proved that during their ACC title run last season, and they brought back their best offensive playmakers for 2012. But any mention of Clemson in the offseason required at least one snarky remark about West Virginia hanging 70 points on the Tigers in the Orange Bowl.
Saturday at the Georgia Dome, the link bent. It stretched to its limit. But with the game on the line, it didn't break. Clemson didn't play defense like LSU or Alabama, but it didn't play defense like Clemson (circa 2011), either. The Tigers gave up only one touchdown in a 26-19 win against Auburn, and they washed away the memory of their 70-point embarrassment with a performance upon which they can build.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables came to Clemson from Oklahoma in January because the Orange Bowl got Kevin Steele fired -- and because Sooners coach Bob Stoops wanted to re-hire his brother, Mike, to run the defense. Venables called Saturday's attitude a "bite-down mentality." In other words, this might hurt a little bit, but you'll survive. "We responded to some adversity in a big-time way," Venables said. "We were holding them out of the end zone. To hold a team in the opener to one touchdown says a lot about our guys. We know we've got a lot of work to do to improve, but I just love the tough attitude we showed in the second half."
The defense didn't inspire confidence early. Late in the first quarter, Auburn receiver Emory Blake was nearly 10 yards from the nearest Clemson defender when he hauled in a 54-yard touchdown pass from Kiehl Frazier. Venables said there was no confusion about the coverage. The Tigers simply lost Blake. Last year, such a score might have sent Clemson into a spiral and touched off a shootout. Saturday, Auburn reached the red zone three more times but never crossed the goal line again, settling for a field goal each time. That's progress.
To motivate his players these past few weeks, Venables offered the occasional reminder of the Orange Bowl. Most of the players had worked hard to forget the shame of 70, and they didn't appreciate the memory jolt. "When somebody brings it back up, it just makes a bitter taste in your mouth," defensive tackle Josh Watson said. "It makes you want to go out there and play even harder."
Auburn tailback Tre Mason gashed Clemson for several long runs, but it seemed every time Auburn reached the red zone, the ground yards evaporated. Clemson forced Auburn into down-and-distance situations that required passes and clamped down on Auburn's receivers. The memories of West Virgina's Tavon Austin running wide open began to fade, and Clemson got more confident with each passing series.
Auburn's final possession provided the ultimate test of the Clemson defense's confidence. With each team out of timeouts and the clock ticking, the game moved closer to backyard football. Each team relied less on scheme and more on winning one-on-one matchups. Auburn needed a touchdown and extra point to tie, and the specter of Blake's lonely catch over the middle in the first quarter loomed. On first-and-10 from Auburn's 42, Clemson's rushers flushed Frazier. Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman forced Frazier to fumble, and Auburn fullback Jay Prosch recovered. On the next play, Frazier missed Travante Stallworth. On third down, with Auburn nearly out of time, sophomore defensive end Vic Beasley sacked Frazier after what felt like minutes. Beasley got credit for the sack in the box score, but every man in coverage deserved a piece of it for smothering Auburn's receivers.
If Clemson's defense can get better in the coming weeks, the Tigers have a chance at another special season. Clemson tailback Andre Ellington rushed for 231 yards Saturday and proved the Tigers don't necessarily need all-everything receiver Sammy Watkins -- suspended for two games after an offseason arrest on drug possession charges -- to move the ball. Quarterback Tajh Boyd (208 passing yards, 58 rushing yards) and receiver Nuke Hopkins (13 catches, 119 yards, one touchdown) offered a glimpse at how good the passing game will be when Watkins returns. Team that offense with a dominant -- or merely respectable -- defense, and Clemson should compete for a second consecutive ACC title. The Tigers have a critical Atlantic Division showdown with Florida State in Tallahassee on Sept. 22, so they'll need to make their improvements quickly. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows this, so he'll have to make sure his defenders don't think too much of themselves because of one win. By the same token, Venables and Brooks probably won't need to remind their defenders of the Orange Bowl humiliation again.
"Our toughest opponent is Clemson, and we made enough mistakes that we probably could have lost to them," Swinney said. "But we overcame them. We found out a lot about a lot of our players."
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