Tigers' defensive growth impressive

There was a strange feeling to Saturday's game at Death Valley.

Yes, it was an ACC game with Clemson hosting Maryland. And yes, the Terrapins put up quite a fight last year when the two teams faced off.

But this is a different year and a very different Maryland team, which has seen its roster hit by injuries seemingly every week. So the game almost felt like an early season matchup against an FCS opponent. There really was never any doubt Clemson was going to win as the Tigers could almost name their score from the start.

The result was a 45-10 decision and what every head coach wants on homecoming: a blowout victory that allows a lot of players to get on the field and keep the starters from having to work too hard for the win.

Tajh Boyd had another terrific outing – we probably should just include that line in this space every week – throwing for 261 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-26 attempts. He seems so comfortable and in control of the offense that it looks like nothing will slow him down or throw him off his game. His growth from last year as a first-year starter is startling.

The running game wasn't great, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry (135 yards on 42 rushes), but the only real strength on the Maryland team is the defensive front, so that was somewhat to be expected. And Andre Ellington did average 4.2 yards per carry (55 yards on 13 attempts), so it's not like the running game didn't do anything.

Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins led the receivers with four catches each, and their numbers weren't as eye-popping as they have been in recent weeks.

But that wasn't the focus. It wasn't going to be a four-quarter game for the key players, and everyone knew that. It was all about getting a big lead early, cruising to the win, letting a lot of reserves get some playing time and allowing the homecoming crowd to enjoy an easy win.

The Tigers accomplished all of those goals Saturday, and they have to be happy about that.

A LITTLE SLOPPY: Last week, Boyd's three interceptions were really the only cause for concern coming out of the Tigers' win over Duke. On Saturday, fumbles were the main reason for concern. Clemson had three fumbles against the Terrapins – one kept the Tigers from scoring and one led to the Terps' only touchdown.

Granted, the Tigers never were threatened, but they have talked all year about playing to a standard, and the turnovers can't be part of that equation against good teams. Clemson can overcome those problems against overmatched teams like Wake Forest, Duke or Maryland, but against a fairly good team in N.C. State or a strong team in South Carolina – or even in a bowl game -- the sloppiness with the ball could hurt this team.

There were also some problems with the special teams that haven't really been seen all season long, and it's certainly not the time to have those kinds of issues.

That said, the Tigers only had one penalty, and that came in the final five minutes of the game. That's impressive and shows plenty of discipline by the team.

ANOTHER STEP FORWARD: Maryland's offense, obviously, was limited with a former linebacker playing quarterback, but Clemson's defense had another growth moment Saturday.

The Terps managed only 180 total yards – 41 passing and 139 rushing -- and 10 first downs, and they were 1-of-13 on third-down tries. The Clemson defense also came up with three big turnovers, including a fumble recovery and return for a touchdown for Corey Crawford on a really impressive athletic play.

The Clemson defense was strong from the start and never really gave the Terps any hope of doing much. The defense could have easily had a shutout, but a turnover and a long return after a missed field goal gave Maryland a short field for both of its scores – one touchdown and one field goal. Other than that, the Terps were inept, and Clemson's young defense, which continues to improve, made them pay for it.

The defense's growth this season has been impressive. For a unit that struggled so mightily against Florida State in the second half, this defense has come a long way in the past six games and is now holding its own and contributing to the team's success in a big way.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables and his staff have to be commended for that. Good coaching is revealed in how players improve during a season, and the defensive staff has done a good job helping these players get better through 10 games, especially since the loss in Tallahassee.

UP NEXT: It is difficult to know what N.C. State team is going show up from game to game. The Wolfpack were blown out at home last week by a Virginia team that had not won a conference game before that.

But Saturday, N.C. State bounced back with an easy win – 37-6 over Wake Forest – to get back on track. Yes, N.C. State lost to North Carolina when it blew a big lead in the fourth quarter, but this is the same N.C. State team that handed Florida State its only loss of the season.

When the Wolfpack are focused and ready to play, they are dangerous; they earned bowl eligibility with their win Saturday over the pesky Demon Deacons, and they will have plenty to play for Saturday at Clemson. But the Wolfpack also seem to get distracted easily, and that leads to losses; they were awful in their season-opening loss to Tennessee.

Clemson will have to be ready to play. We saw what happened last year when the Tigers weren't ready to play against the Wolfpack. It was ugly. But that hasn't been a problem with this year's Clemson team. Dabo Swinney's players have been focused throughout the season on the job at hand each week, and they haven't gotten distracted like they did last year. There's really no reason to think that will happen this week.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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