CLEMSON, S.C. — There are times when you wonder if Clemson even practices defense.
The Tigers have been all about putting the “O” in Clemson under coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris, throwing and running and scoring with ease.
They recruit the fast and the furious and put them at the skill positions and watch as the other teams try to keep pace.
Remember when you were a kid playing touch football with your buddies in the front yard and said things like, “First team to 40 wins?”
That’s what they do with Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Andre Ellington at running back and DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins at receiver.
And, for the most part, that’s worked well.
The Tigers were 10-4 last year thanks to their high-flying ways, but they became a national punch line when West Virginia hung 70 points on them in the Orange Bowl.
“Hey. Did y’all hear? The Mountaineers just scored again.”
Swinney failed to find the humor in that joke, so he hired defensive coordinator Brent Venables away from Oklahoma and gave him $800,000 a year to fix the defensive issues.
And for the first time this season, Clemson’s defense came through with a performance that outshined their offense.
They hounded Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas into throwing two interceptions, returning one for a score.
They intercepted another pass on a trick play.
They had two sacks, five other tackles for loss and recovered a fumble, and even though they continued to give up big plays, the Tigers put together their best defensive effort of the season in a 38-17 win over the Hokies on Saturday.
“We have been growing up as a defense as a whole,” said safety Jonathan Meeks, who had two interceptions and returned one 74 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. “(The offense) had our back all season. We had their backs today.”
Clemson isn’t about to challenge Alabama or LSU or the other top-notch defensive teams in the country, but this was a baby step toward respectability.
The Tigers hadn’t held a FBS opponent to less than 19 points this season, and that was in the opener against Auburn, which lost to Vanderbilt on Saturday and is in the bottom half of the SEC in practically every offensive category.
Ball State scored 27 on them two weeks before Florida State posted 49. Anemic Boston College rang up 31 the week before Clemson’s defense had what could be called a moral victory by holding Georgia Tech to 31 points.
The Tigers (6-1, 3-1 ACC) then had an extra week to prepare for Virginia Tech, which fell to 4-4, the first time the Hokies have been .500 or worse this late in the season since 1992, when they were 2-5-1.
Venables used the added time to analyze his players and schemes and see if any changes needed to be made. He concocted formulas to confuse Thomas and figured out ways to stop an offense that scored 41 consecutive points to beat Duke last week.
He decided to start Spencer Shuey at middle linebacker, replacing Stephone Anthony, who had started the first six games. Shuey had nine tackles, 2½ for losses, but Clemson’s strong showing was a result of much more than that.
The Tigers put pressure on Thomas and put him on the run. And even though he rushed for 99 yards and passed for 207, the Hokies couldn’t finish their drives.
Clemson held them to two touchdowns.
“You want to play well. You have pride and you’re used to having success, and understand what it takes,” Venables said. “To me, the mark of a great player and the mark of really good defense are the ones that are the model of consistency, and when you don’t have that, you have no chance. We’ve been incredibly inconsistent, and we’re better that way, but not anywhere near what we want to be. But to be better that way, gives you reason for optimism.”
Clemson now has to carry this forward.
They have to improve on the success they showed against Virginia Tech and demonstrate it in their final five games.
Only then will they be the complete team that Swinney seeks.