CLEMSON. S.C. Theres bad, theres worse and then theres Where is the remote control? I cant watch this anymore.
Thats how Clemson coach Dabo Swinney felt while trying to watch a replay of his teams 49-37 loss at Florida State last season.
We werent very good, Swinney recalled Tuesday. I had to turn it off. They gained about 670 yards against us.
As awful as that defensive performance was, it cant be dismissed as an anomaly. Since the start of the 2011 season a span of 33 games the Tigers have allowed 37 or more points six times, including a perplexing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
But something appears to be changing. The third-ranked Tigers enter their showdown with fifth-ranked Florida State (8 p.m., ABC-TV) playing their best defense since Swinney became head coach five years ago. Clemson leads major-college football in sacks per game (4.0), fewest third-down conversions (23.7 percent) and tackles for loss (10.2 per game). Their points allowed (16.2 per game) is 10th-best nationally.
As Swinney noted Tuesday, the Tigers were 60th in defense following that Florida State loss.
Its unbelievable to see how far weve come, said linebacker Spencer Shuey, a former star at South Mecklenburg. We watch that (Florida State game) and laugh at how many mistakes we made.
Clemson opened this season against one of the countrys most talented offenses in Georgia, and survived with a 38-35 home victory. They figure to be challenged just as much by the Seminoles, who have a spectacular quarterback in redshirt freshman Jameis Winston and great depth at running back with James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman.
The difference between the last Seminoles game and this one is the Tigers dont feel they have to score off every possession to compete with a top team.
It shows that the offense trusts us, Shuey said. Its important to come together as a team.
There will always be worry about how Clemsons offensive pace affects its defensive numbers. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris advocates a lightning pace that puts the defense back on the field without much break, regardless of whether Clemson scores or punts.
But that doesnt explain away the problems Clemson had defensively. Two years ago, Swinney replaced defensive coordinator Kevin Steele with Brent Venables, whod coached primarily in the Big 12. Venables inherited some talented, but very young, defensive recruits.
It was no quick fix. But now, with a star in pass-rusher Vic Beasley (nine sacks in six games), the defense no longer must apologize to the offense.
Freshmen became sophomores and sophomores became juniors, said Swinney. We got experienced depth at key positions.
Shuey, a graduate student in his final season of eligibility, saw a seriousness in that maturity. Guys showed up on their own to watch extra game video and brought a fresh sense of synergy.
Whatever the cause, quarterback Tajh Boyd sees a change in the defense.
Weve got guys whove done it, Boyd said. They have performed outstandingly.
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129 ; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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