CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard hasn't had it easy on campus, despite the 14th-ranked Tigers' fast start this year.
Willard said it's difficult when students, fans and others talk down a defense that has struggled to make tackles, stop the run and needed the team's high-flying offense to bail them out over and over again this year. Well, that may be changing after they held down Virginia Tech in a 38-17 victory on Saturday. "I'm not going to say we've arrived yet," Willard said. "We've got a lot of work to do, but this is very encouraging."
There haven't been many encouraging moments in coordinator Brent Venables first season leading the defense. He was hired away from Oklahoma last January when Clemson's defense folded late in the season, giving up nearly 38 points a game its final four contests. The capper was an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl when Clemson's defenders became the face of national jokes.
"It wasn't easy," Willard said.
Things hadn't gone that well the first half of this year for Clemson (6-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) on defense, either. The Tigers were last in the ACC against the run and 10th of 12 teams in league points allowed at 37 a game. They gave up 49 points to Florida State and 31 each to Boston College and Georgia Tech its previous three games.
But after a week off, the Tigers showed a fire on defense and made several game changing plays. Linebacker Corico Wright and defensive end Corey Crawford combined to stop Virginia Tech tailback Michael Holmes on fourth-and-1 from Clemson's 18 when a first down might've led to a 14-0 lead for the Hokies. Safety Jonathan Meeks had a pair of second-quarter interceptions off Virginia Tech star quarterback Logan Thomas, the second one which he took 74 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 Clemson lead.
There was another fourth-down stop and an interception in the second half as the Tigers ended with their fewest points allowed against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since, well, Virginia Tech in 38-10 in last December's ACC championship game.
It would be easy to say Clemson's defense has Tech's number — the Tigers have given up a total of 30 points to the Hokies in three Clemson victories the past two season — but Venables hopes the showing means his system's taking hold.
He warned his players Hokies long-time defensive coordinator most likely spent months scheming how to slow down Clemson's offense. "So they should not expect to get bailed out by the offense and get in some shootout," Venables said. "Hopefully, that didn't fall on deaf ears."
The defensive effort was crucial since Clemson's typically productive offense struggled to get itself going against the Hokies. Virginia Tech had five sacks on quarterback Tajh Boyd after the Tigers had given up just 10 in their first six games.
Boyd was harassed and pressured just to get the ball off, finishing 12 of 21 for 160 yards after coming in as the ACC's leader at more than 291 yards passing. Still, Boyd accounted for three touchdowns, two rushing and a 37-yard scoring pass to DeAndre Hopkins.
Clemson's defense had its hands full containing Thomas, the Hokies 6-foot-6 star passer. He threw for 207 yards and a touchdown and ran for 99 yards and a 19-yard score. Still, it wasn't enough to keep Virginia Tech (2-2 ACC) from falling to 4-4, its worst mark this late in the season since 1992.
"We did everything we wanted to on offense pretty much the whole game," Thomas said. "I thought we had a great statistical day on offense. We were able to move the ball, but it didn't equate to points because of turnovers. It wasn't that we couldn't score points. It was that we didn't."
Venables will take it after the way much of the year has gone. The 406 yards Virginia Tech gained were below Clemson's average of 445 yards a game given up this season. Venables knows his players have to build on what they've done.
The Tigers have a short turnaround before playing at Wake Forest (4-3, 2-3) on Thursday night. "You got to go do it again and do it again, that's what the season's about," Venables said. "The funnest times I've had as a coach is when I've seen great improvement from the beginning of the year until the end."