CLEMSON — Three weeks ago, it looked like nothing had changed with Clemson’s defense.
Georgia Tech ran over, around and through the Tigers, exposing poor pass defense and worse tackling. Clemson won 47-31 thanks to a few key fourth-quarter defensive plays, but little was accomplished overall: the Yellow Jackets piled up 483 yards of total offense even after a rare week spent doing live tackling and cutting in practice.
Through three ACC games, the Tigers had allowed an average of 37 points and 523 yards per game.
Improvement was needed, and quickly.
Over the last two weeks, it has happened. Clemson followed a solid effort against Virginia Tech with its best defensive night of the season Thursday against Wake Forest, holding the Demon Deacons to 290 total yards in a 42-13 rout.
Over the last two weeks, Clemson has limited its foes to 15 points and 348 yards of total offense, while also picking up seven sacks, matching its total from the first six games.
Brent Venables’ unit is far from a finished product, but it is taking clear steps forward.
“It was a big challenge to see if we could keep that momentum going from game to game rather than just doing it one time and letting down,” said senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman. “It’s good to see we kept that fire that we had last week.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says the success is a natural progression.
“They're figuring it out,” Swinney said. “They're learning how to play from their own experience. All those young guys up front are starting to become players, and now you see Malliciah (Goodman) (who had his second sack in as many weeks) coming on, too.
“They've had eight games and an open date. They've watched themselves on film. You can only bring them so far. They have to go play, make mistakes, and correct their mistakes.”
A young defensive line is improving around Goodman, as well. Sophomore Vic Beasley had two sacks Thursday. Fellow sophomore Josh Watson had two sacks and a fumble recovery. A third sophomore, DeShawn Williams, had five tackles, including one for loss. And true freshman D.J. Reader has emerged as an impact player over the last month, getting solid pocket penetration.
Junior middle linebacker Spencer Shuey – who replaced former five-star signee Stephone Anthony in a starting role two weeks ago – had another impressive game, with five tackles. And senior Tig Willard continues to provide consistent production from the “Will” spot; he had eight tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss Thursday.
A paper-thin secondary playing without starting corners Darius Robinson (out for the rest of the regular season with a fractured ankle) and Bashaud Breeland (sidelined Thursday by an abdominal strain) held up well against Tanner Price and a pass-happy Wake offense, even though starter Garry Peters missed the second half with a back injury (Swinney said he could have returned).
“Guys backing up can play. They’re scholarship guys as well,” said senior safety Jonathan Meeks. “We believe in them. That’s our mentality.”
The same can be said for the entire defense.
“We always work hard,” Meeks said. “ Everybody has got in their mind we’re going to be the best defense we can be with the personnel we have. Everyone believes in that. We believe in each other. Results are getting better each week.”
November will bring significant challenges – pass-happy Duke awaits next week, with strong-armed Mike Glennon and N.C. State coming to Death Valley Nov. 17. South Carolina lost star tailback Marcus Lattimore to a serious knee injury Saturday, but even without Lattimore last year, quarterback Connor Shaw carved up the Tigers’ defense through the air and on the ground in a 34-13 win.
Good things are happening for this defense. For Clemson to reach its goals, that trend must continue towards Thanksgiving and beyond.