CLEMSON — As the calendar turns to October, Clemson’s overall confidence is booming.
The Tigers do not control their road to the ACC title, thanks to their loss at No.4 Florida State, but their schedule has gotten a lot more comfortable.
Starting with Saturday's 3:30 p.m., ESPN-televised visit from Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2), No.15 Clemson (4-1, 1-1) will play five of its last seven games inside Memorial Stadium, with a two-week run to Wake Forest and Duke the only exception.
Clemson has full and complete respect for the Yellow Jackets, a team they’ve lost four of their last five meetings with, but today begins a stretch which might see only one more ranked team on the schedule – South Carolina on Nov. 24.
If the Tigers can get improved play from a struggling defense to go with a potent offense, their possibilities are exciting.
“We’ve got a tremendous opportunity to have a special season,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “I think a lot of things can turn our way.”
Last year’s 31-17 loss to Tech in Atlanta still sticks in Clemson’s collective craw. The Tigers entered 8-0 and ranked No.5 in the BCS standings, but committed five turnovers – including three Boyd interceptions – and dropped a 31-17 decision that started a 2-4 season-ending slide.
“There were a lot of factors that led to us having what looked like a big head coming into that game,” Boyd said. “I don’t think we came with the same intensity we should have. It didn’t work out the way we wanted to. We just didn’t execute.”
Just like a year ago, Georgia Tech enters riding a two-game losing streak. Defensive coordinator Al Groh has taken major heat for a unit which has allowed 91 points and 1,119 yards over its last two games, including last week’s 49-28 thrashing at Middle Tennessee State’s hands.
“I’m not going to sit here and try to defend how we’ve played the last couple of weeks. It’d be stupid because we’ve played terrible,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “But I don’t think the man forgot everything he knew in the last two weeks, but ultimately we’re responsible. You’ve got to get it on the field.”
What’s wrong with Tech’s defense? It’d be easier to say what isn’t.
“We’ve had some communication issues, but even having said that, the bottom-line is we have to tackle better, quit giving up the big plays, take better angles and every time the ball breaks the line of scrimmage it doesn’t have to be a touchdown,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of things we can get better on, but there are things we can get better on everywhere.”
The Yellow Jackets’ flexbone option offense is a constant. Tech averages 339 yards rushing per game, third-best in FBS, and Tevin Washington’s 11 rushing touchdowns are a high among FBS quarterbacks.
A year ago, Tech rushed for 383 yards and held the ball for 39 minutes, a stat compounded by Clemson’s turnovers.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says his defense must play with discipline.
“Do your job,” he said. “They had a couple long runs last year where we had someone for the quarterback, but instead of that guy doing his job, he’d bite on the pump fake and go tackle the pitch guy. That’s not his job. His job is to tackle the quarterback. That’s where we have major issues. We’ll always have numbers but we’ve got to play with great discipline and do it every single play.”
That’s been a problem this season: last week, Clemson allowed nine plays of 20-plus yards at Boston College. The Tigers yield 438 yards and 26.6 points per game, which ranks 87th nationally in total defense and 65th in scoring defense.
“We’ve made really critical mistakes,” Swinney said. “It’s just not playing smart. That starts with us as coaches. We’ve got to continue to work our butts off to do a better job, getting guys to do what they’re supposed to do over and over. Great defenses don’t beat themselves.”
The Yellow Jackets’ flexbone will create plenty of temptation. Senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard says his unit needs a narrow focus.
“Last year it was guys trying to do too much,” he said. “We forget to do our job and go do someone else’s job and we lose our gap. A guy gets outside of us. We’re mostly focused on doing our specific job.”