Defense raises level of play for No. 8 Clemson
Clemson's explosive new offense has helped the Tigers defense excel, too.
Defensive tackle Kourtnei Brown said his group has found its stride the past few weeks for the eighth-ranked Tigers (6-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), in part because they practice against their high-powered offense each day.
At first Brown and the rest of the defense weren't sure what to think when first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris demanded a high-speed tempo from players.
''I got winded out there,'' Brown said. ''But I knew that this is what we needed to be special.''
The offense has improved from 10th in the ACC last year - averaging 334 yards and 24 points a game - to second this year, racking up 472 yards and 35 points a game.
And now the defense has found its stride.
In the past two games the Tigers held both Virginia Tech and Boston College to under 300 yards of offense. Clemson kept the Hokies out of the end zone at Lane Stadium for the first time since 1995.
''We've really been flying around,'' Brown said.
Clemson will try and keep the pressure up on both sides of the ball at Maryland (2-3, 1-1) on Saturday.
Especially on defense.
While Clemson's surprising offense stole the show with newcomers like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, the defense was slower to respond.
Clemson's has been known for NFL standout defenders like the Perry brothers, William ''The Fridge'' and Michael Dean, Terry Kinard, Levon Kirkland and Brian Dawkins.
This year's defense lost several standouts from a group ranked 19th nationally in 2010, including Nagurski Trophy and Hendricks Award winner in defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who led the country with 15 1/2 sacks. Also gone were three quarters of Clemson's secondary, safety DeAndre McDaniel, Byron Maxwell and Marcus Gilchrist.
Those absences showed as opponents connected on too many big plays to suit Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's tastes. Wofford of the Football Championship Series had two plays over 60 yards in a 35-27 loss at Death Valley last month. Auburn and Florida State had several long gains before falling to Clemson.
That's when things turned. The players knew they were better than what they had showed before and pledged to step up their games to do their part in Clemson's undefeated season.
''We're just going out and playing as a unit,'' linebacker Corico Hawkins said. ''When we're doing things as a group, you're seeing the results.''
The linchpin was the showing at Lane Stadium, someplace the Hokies rarely get shut down. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called it best defensive game he'd ever been around.
Virginia Tech managed just 258 yards as the Tigers registered four sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. The Hokies punted eight times.
Steele, in his third season in charge of Clemson's defense, said the team's first three games featured spread and option teams that took away the effectiveness of the Tigers front line defenders. Now, that's showing through as defensive end Andre Branch leads the ACC with six sacks, four of them coming in the Virginia Tech victory.
''You have to have pocket pushers,'' Steele said. ''What's been created is we have one-on-one matchups on the (offensive) tackles with Branch and Malliciah (Goodman). So that's a hard day's work for an open-edge tackle.''
Maryland coach Randy Edsall understands the implications of keeping Tigers defenders from running too free in the Terps backfield, and falling further behind the ACC title chase.
''This is a situation where we can't afford to get two games down,'' Edsall said. ''We have a lot of work to do to get a win this weekend.''
Clemson's had its share of problems with Maryland the past five years, losing as a ranked team to the unranked Terps in 2006 and 2008, then falling, 24-21, in 2009 despite having three chances inside Maryland's 30 in the fourth quarter.
None of that matters to the Tigers right now. Linebacker Jonathan Willard said the players are focused on fixing the little problems during the week to be a flawless team come gametime.
''When we come together on Saturday, we're just one unit and technique sound,'' he said.