Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables knew he had talented players, even if they hadn't always shown that early on. Now, the Tigers are showing they can play a little defense, too.
No. 11 Clemson put on its best defensive showing of the season, holding Maryland to 180 yards in a 45-10 victory on Saturday. The Tigers (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have been fueled all season by a record-setting offense that's scored 45 points a game during its six-game win streak. These days, the high-flying offense is backed up by a defense that seemed a lost cause earlier in the year.
Venables is the first year coordinator brought in to tighten and toughen a group that gave up a bowl-record 70 points in losing to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Venables understands the Terrapins (4-6, 2-4) are in an injury-induced free-fall, using linebacker Shawn Petty at quarterback and without star receiver Stefon Diggs because of ankle problems.
Still, there's no hiding that Clemson's finding its defensive groove late in the season. The defense forced Terps quarterback Shawn Petty into a pair of fumbles, both which led to Tiger touchdowns. One of those came from defensive end Corey Crawford, who scooped up the ball and ran 16 yards for a score and a 14-0 lead. The Tigers pressured Petty all game, collecting two sacks and limiting him to 6 of 11 passing for 41 yards.
"I'm happy and proud of all those guys," Venables said.
The Tigers won an ACC championship despite a defense that was ninth in the league in yards allowed. The low point came in Clemson's first BCS game, an embarrassing 70-33 defeat where the Tigers allowed West Virginia to run wild with 589 yards. Coordinator Kevin Steele was out and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney brought in Venables, the ultra-successful defensive mind for a national championship program at Oklahoma.
Things were rough at first as players adjusted to Venables' different concepts, Crawford said. The Tigers looked lost in a 20-minute stretch at Florida State in September, surrendering five touchdowns and a 14-point lead to lose 49-37 at Tallahassee — a loss that looks like it will cost Clemson a second consecutive try at a league title.
Clemson gave up 667 yards — the second highest total in school history — to Florida State and Venables was asked over and over if the Tigers had good enough players to stop anybody.
"Hey listen, I told them all along we've got some quality players here," Venables said. "We're good enough to play very good defense if we understand what we're supposed to do."
Understanding has clicked in the past few games. The Tigers held Wake Forest to 290 yards in a 42-13 victory. Surprising Duke managed 342 yards and scored just 3 points the final three quarters in Clemson's 56-20 win.
Venables said it took time for the players to feel comfortable in the different schemes. The Tigers have also been stronger with the little things, like proper alignment, sharp technique and correct reactions to what they're seeing when the play unfolds. "They've really worked incredibly hard, they're out there early at practice working on the little things and understanding football," he said.
Clemson's defenders never gave Petty and the Terps the chance to get synched. Crawford's strip sack, scoop and score effectively ended things, forcing Maryland to play catch up without the personnel to accomplish that.
Crawford didn't feel sorry, though. "To be honest, that's their problem," he said with a laugh. "No pity."
Maryland coach Randy Edsall said the Tigers forced his team off the field quickly, stalling drives and quashing momentum. The Terps were just 1 of 13 on third downs. "Against those guys, you have to be able to do that," he said.
Venables hopes the Tigers carry their defensive momentum the final two games. Clemson's got a chance to hit milestones it hadn't since the school's perfect, 12-0 national championship season of 1981.
The Maryland victory gave Clemson back-to-back six win ACC seasons for the first time since 1987 and 1988. Beating North Carolina State next week would mean two straight seasons of double-digit wins since posting four consecutive 10-win seasons since 1987-90.
Winning out — the Tigers close the year at home against rival South Carolina — could bring an at-large BCS berth and the chance to wipe away the embarrassing stain left by the West Virginia game.
Crawford says it's hard not to look ahead sometimes, especially with what's at stake. "But we have to be disciplined and take it one game at a time," he said. "We can reminisce on what just happened. We've got to go for the game that we're playing right here and now."