CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson entered Saturday’s home game with NC State trending in the direction of most teams with BCS bowl aspirations in mid-November.
In their previous four games prior to the explosive Wolfpack’s visit, the Tigers’ opponents averaged just 15 points per outing. Granted, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland comprised the quartet, but the Tigers played pretty well, nonetheless.
Yet, that all came crashing down Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Clemson didn’t lose, it actually won 62-48 and gained a share of the Atlantic Division title. But this wasn’t the first video game score in a Tigers’ contest this season, and it must be troubling to those with a rooting interest Dabo Swinney’s team.
And given the reputation it carried throughout the offseason — courtesy of a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl last January — the program’s image took another bad hit because its defense just isn’t up to BCS snuff. But don’t expect the coaches to dump on their team.
Swinney said afterward he was proud of the defense for the stops it got and for its grit. And new defensive coordinator Brent Venables pretty much echoed those words.
“Believe it or not, I’m proud of our guys the way they fought tonight. It’s hard to look at this paper, it’s hard to justify what I’m saying,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “But I watched what I watched. I saw some bad football, we gave up some big plays …
“I’m a bottom line guy, and we’re not going to get into the habit of having shootouts, outscoring people, that’s unacceptable. But our guys showed great toughness and played with great effort tonight.”
NC State was that good on offense and Clemson was that bad trying to stop the Pack.
The Wolfpack is often quite dangerous with the ball when quarterback Mike Glennon gets time to throw and is on the mark, like he was on this day. The Wolfpack scored early in bunches and late in waves. It ran the ball, used a variety of passing routes, and was explosive on special teams.
Other than a stretch in the middle of the game when No. 11 Clemson (10-1, 7-1 ACC) ran off a 42-0 run, its defense was every bit as bad as it was in that Orange Bowl game. Maybe even more discouraging.
Swinney brought in Venables to run the defense, and at times the unit has been solid. Even still, It has given up far too many points. Even Boston College scored 31 points against the Tigers. Georgia Tech, which managed just 28 and 17 at home versus Middle Tennessee State and BYU, respectively, finished with 31 against Clemson. And, of course, Florida State posted 49 points in a 12-point victory in Tallahassee, FL, in September.
Last year’s team at least squashed a much more prolific Virginia Tech team than we’ve seen this season.
With the ball, Clemson looks very much like a BCS club. Tajh Boyd and company are as good as just about any offense in the country perhaps outside of Oregon. But the defense is holding back the program. It may still receive and invitation to a BCS bowl by beating hated rival South Carolina here at Death Valley next weekend. Several published projections have the Tigers taking on Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
But that doesn’t make Clemson football as a whole a worthy BCS club. Consider the following, and then imagine any of the other BCS bowl contenders struggling so much:
Glennon passed for a Memorial Stadium record 493 yards. He connected on five touchdown passes in the process. The Wolfpack gobbled up 597 total yards on 88 plays, and had 277 kickoff return yards. NCSU wide receiver and kick returner Tobias Palmer set an ACC record for all-purpose yards in a game with 496. This was in the same game against a team that could fire its coach.
Clemson led 13-0 before the Pack erupted for 24 unanswered points. And after the Tigers ran off 42 straight of their own, Clemson let up and allowed NC State right back in it.
The Tigers didn’t show the toughness or grittiness usually associated with BCS teams. NCSU even had a 100-yard rusher, as true freshman Shadrach Thornton ran for 114 on 21 carries.
“Our defense, we’ve been stepping up a lot this last half of the season,” sophomore defensive end Vic Beasely said. “We don’t want other teams put up big numbers on our defense, and to have like close to 600 yards (against Clemson), I was just telling the guys on the sidelines we can’t let them score anymore.”
What makes Clemson’s case for the BCS is that its offense is ridiculously good. Boyd set a school-record with 520 total yards Saturday. He became the first player in ACC history to account for eight touchdowns in a single game — passed for five and ran for three — and engineered an offense that amassed 754 yards and set a program record by running 102 offensive plays.
The offense is worthy of the national stage, and that’s why Clemson is going to get a BCS invitation if it beats the Gamecocks next week. And it should.
But that shouldn’t mask a serious issue on defense that must be dealt with.