CLEMSON — Saturday was the kind of day that only Bizarro Superman – and Brent Venables – could appreciate.
Up was down. Good was bad. Clemson’s vaunted, high-powered offense simply wasn’t itself.
So naturally, a struggling, beleaguered defense put together its best performance of 2012.
The Tigers’ defense put up its best point total of the season, forced a season-high four turnovers and carried its weight and then some as No.14 Clemson pulled away for a 38-17 rout of Virginia Tech before a sold-out Memorial Stadium crowd of 81,500 on Military Appreciation Day.
The Tigers improved to 6-1, 3-1 in ACC play and won their 11th consecutive home game, tying a program record; they now face a short turnaround before heading to Wake Forest for a Thursday night game televised nationally on ESPN. The Hokies fell to 4-4, 2-2, tying a season low in points.
Clemson entered the game averaging 525 yards of total offense per game, and was outgained 406-295. It marked the second time in the last 20 years the Tigers had been outgained by more than 100 yards and won by at least 20 points.
“There’s a lot that was definitely more positive than negative for the first time in a while. I don’t take it lightly, either,” said Venables, the Tigers’ first-year defensive coordinator. “ Just in regards to the work they deserve to have success. They have worked all year. You feel better about where you’re going.”
Entering Saturday, Clemson had allowed an average of 523 yards and 37 points per game in its three ACC games. It had held only two teams under 25 points – Auburn and Furman. It ranked 99th nationally in rush defense (202.7 ypg) and 97th in total defense (445.5 ypg).
Senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard said Venables changed little, but the open week helped tremendously.
“We had another week in the defense, got a chance to see things more, got a chance to actually work on ourselves a little bit more,” he said. “We were actually trying to put things together from us working on ourselves to us working on Virginia Tech, just scheming it.”
It was a big step forward for a group which badly needed it.
“Our defense is continuing to get better,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Anyone who has really paid attention to us over the last three weeks, as the game has worn on, we’ve improved. We’re getting better, playing with great energy, playing a lot of guys with competitive spirit. They’re applying and understanding lessons week to week.”
They also picked up an offense which had its poorest day of the season. The Tigers’ average starting field position was their own 41. Three scoring drives started in Tech territory, with a fourth at the Clemson 48.
It was a less-than-auspicious start, which Swinney said led offensive coordinator Chad Morris to “almost throw his hat a couple of times.” Clemson entered the game allowing 1.6 sacks per game, but Tajh Boyd was sacked twice on the first three plays.
Quarterback Logan Thomas converted a third-and-1 from the Clemson 30 with a sneak, and Corey Fuller shook safety Jonathan Meeks for a 29-yard touchdown catch and 7-0 lead less than five minutes in.
The next drive reached the Tech 31 before Boyd threw too high for DeAndre Hopkins. Hokie rover Michael Cole was in the right place at the right time, grabbing the interception while on his backside.
Clemson rebounded with an impressive 13-play, 73-yard drive, but had to settle for a field goal.
“I don’t feel like we came out as fired up, don’t feel like we executed as well as we needed to,” Boyd said.
Clemson capitalized on a punt glanced off returner Michael Holmes, with linebacker Tony Steward recovered at the Tech 26. Boyd charged forward for 10 yards on third and 8 from the 11, and finished the drive with an over-the-top plunge for a one-yard score and 10-7 Clemson lead with 9:29 left in the half.
A few minutes later, Meeks made his presence known in a big way. Thomas floated a pass high – right to Meeks, who took off down the left sideline. 74 yards later, he had Clemson’s first interception return score in over a year and a 17-7 lead with 3:46 to go before halftime.
Halfway through the third quarter, Clemson’s offense caught a major break. Sammy Watkins appeared to fumble following a reception at the Tech 40, and Tech coach Frank Beamer called timeout to challenge the call.
It stood, and Beamer reacted with disgust.
“That was a huge call for us right there,” Swinney said.
On third and 6 from the 37, Boyd found Sammy Watkins open down the right sideline for a 27-yard gain. Two plays later, Andre Ellington bulled 12 yards for a touchdown and 24-10 Clemson lead.
Following a Tech three-and-out, the Tigers iced the game, taking over at the Hokies’ 47.
Boyd fired down the right sideline for Hopkins, who hauled it in for a 37-yard touchdown and 31-10 lead with 50 seconds left in the quarter.
“You get in those situations you’ve got to win matchups,” Swinney said. “We made some of the plays we didn’t quite finish. In the second half we came out and finished those plays. Live by the sword, die by the sword.”