Defense is not a dirty word.
If you’re a Clemson fan this season, embrace that. The video-game era might be over. That doesn’t mean the 2-0 Tigers can’t make a third consecutive trip to college football’s playoffs.
Third-ranked Clemson beat 13th-ranked Auburn Saturday 14-6. There were times over the previous two seasons when a combined total of 20 points would have been typical of a first quarter. That was when Deshaun Watson was throwing and Mike Williams was catching those passes, and 30 Clemson points was nothing more than a respectable half.
Enduring programs – Clemson under coach Dabo Swinney’s watch belongs in that small group – discern how to win different ways. This version of the Tigers will hang a 50 somewhere along its upcoming ACC schedule, but that won’t be the norm.
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The Tigers still have great players, but this season the best of them come in jumbo size. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are so imposing in the way they occupy blockers that they have a profound effect on a game.
A superficial glance at the statistics Saturday doesn’t do those two justice. Wilkins had 10 tackles and two sacks. Lawrence, a first-team preseason All-American, had two tackles, neither for loss.
But what they did reflects on the entire defense: Clemson finished this game with 11 sacks, plus two additional tackles for loss. They kept Auburn out of the end zone, which is no small task against a solid, elusive quarterback like Jarrett Stidham.
The visual image that defined this game was Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables walking off the field. His grin could have illuminated one of the stadium’s bank of lights. Venables is never going to be content – it’s a coach’s job to quibble over minor flaws – but this one was pretty close to ideal as a defensive performance.
“Our guys were strong all night. There was a lot of adversity, and they found a way to win,” said Venables, who might be the best assistant coach in college football.
“We complemented each other, both the front end and the back end. The secondary was terrific against a really good quarterback. We played with such passion and toughness; really gritty.”
Grit is how this team must excel to have a chance to defend its national championship. Watson is with the Houston Texans and Williams is a Los Angeles Charger; both were first-round picks. The offense lost several other playmakers to the NFL draft.
Watson’s replacement, Kelly Bryant, is reliable. The junior from Calhoun Falls, S.C., deserved the first shot at starting, and he’s done nothing so far to lose that job. He ran for both of Clemson’s touchdowns against Auburn.
But Bryant isn’t Watson, so the defense must continue setting the bar. Perhaps the toughest test of that defense is a few days away, when Clemson plays at 17th-ranked Louisville Saturday.
Watson wasn’t the Heisman Trophy winner last season; Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was, and he hasn’t fallen off that level this season. In a 47-35 victory at North Carolina Saturday, Jackson accounted for 525 total yards and six touchdowns.
So Venables can’t spare time to savor what just happened. It’s now his job to contain Jackson for the second season in a row (Clemson won at home last season, 42-36).
“He can run it, he can throw it, he can improvise, he’s hard to tackle,” Venables described. “He has this crazy, wiry strength to him, and he’s a great competitor.
“And he’s coached very well; he’s not just out there winging it.”
That means Wilkins and Lawrence, and all those four- and five-star defenders who surround them, better get plenty of sleep this week.
That particular topic – rest – was on Wilkins’ mind post-game.
“I’m going to need some sleep; I can’t afford for him to keep me up” fretting, Wilkins said.
“It’s really scary to see what he’s become – the total package.”
Of course, Clemson’s defensive front looked pretty good Saturday at unwrapping packages.