CLEMSON — 10 months ago, Kevin Steele coached his final game as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, largely because he couldn’t stop mobile quarterbacks, spread offenses or the option.
Enter Brent Venables, hired away from Oklahoma and given an $800,000 annual salary to do exactly that.
Five games into his Clemson tenure, Venables’ system is a work in progress. The Tigers rank 87th nationally in total defense and 65th in scoring defense, having allowed 80 points over their last two games.
They’ll receive a major test Saturday against Georgia Tech’s flexbone option – which has given Clemson major problems since Paul Johnson arrived in Atlanta in 2008. The Tigers are 1-4 against Johnson, with the only win a 27-13 decision here two years ago. We’ll find out plenty about how disciplined and patient Venables’ players are against a grind-it-out foe.
Here are five things I’ll be watching when the Tigers and Yellow Jackets clash:
1. Can Clemson stop the option?: The flexbone has been a major thorn in the Tigers’ side over the past four years. A year ago, Georgia Tech rushed for 383 yards in a 31-17 win that spoiled Clemson’s undefeated season, keeping the ball for 39 minutes. It is kryptonite to Chad Morris’ spread system, largely because it keeps it on the sidelines. It can also lull defenses to sleep, banging out three and four-yard gains consistently before the big mistake allows a 75-yard, momentum-changing touchdown run. A Clemson defense which has had issues with consistency and discipline will be severely tested.
2. Is Garry Peters an answer at cornerback: Last week, Peters replaced ineffective Darius Robinson and made a splash, garnering his first career interception and generally playing effectively against a pass-happy Boston College attack. This will be a very different challenge against a team which passes only occasionally, but is effective when it does so. Peters will have to stay on his toes; if he makes a mistake, it’ll be hard to cover.
3. Can Clemson keep the ball: Morris’ offense has achieved the balance it wants, passing for 311 yards per game while rushing for 200. It stumbled at Florida State only when it hit a stretch of four three-and-outs (and a fumble) in a five-series span. Staying on the field and keeping the ball is crucial against the Tech flexbone, because when you give the Jackets the ball, you never know when you’re going to get it back. Case in point: Trailing 31-17, Clemson got the ball at the Tech 10 early in the fourth quarter a year ago. On the very next play, Tajh Boyd threw an interception following a miscommunication with Sammy Watkins. The Jackets ground out the next nine minutes, killing any hopes of a comeback. Turnovers are never good, but against the flexbone, they’re especially poisonous.
4. Can anyone stop anyone?: Tech has allowed 91 points over its last two games. Clemson has yielded 80. The Tigers’ foes – Florida State and Boston College – were superior to the Jackets’ opponents in Miami and Middle Tennessee State - but taking the over might be smart. Three years ago, these teams engaged in a 39-34 ACC title-game shootout that featured no punts. It wouldn’t be surprising if a similar scene unfolded Saturday.
5. Can a backup tailback emerge?: Senior Andre Ellington has been excellent – and healthy – but there is little depth behind him. Boyd is the team’s No.2 rusher, with 161 yards; no other Clemson tailback has 100 yards through five games. Sophomore D.J. Howard will miss this week with a shoulder injury, meaning junior Rod McDowell will receive more playing time. In a game where possession is crucial, he could be counted upon for a larger-than-normal role.