My wife, Laura, and sons, Ben and Matt, attended last year's Clemson-N.C. State game that turned into one of the really wild shootouts of the college football season.
When they returned to Middle Georgia the next day, Ben said, "Dad, that was a fun game … when Clemson had the ball."
Brent Venables probably felt the same way.
Clemson rolled up 754 yards, 426 passing and 328 rushing, but only won by 14 points as the defense struggled mightily in a 62-48 win. It was a terrific performance by Tajh Boyd and the Clemson offense, but the troublesome part was that Boyd and his mates had to play like that to win the game. If they let up, even just a little bit, the Tigers could have been in real trouble that day.
Four games and 10 months later, the Clemson defense looks nothing like the unit that gave up 597 yards, including 493 passing, to the Wolfpack.
Yes, the defense allowed 35 points and 545 yards against Georgia in the season opener, but the Bulldogs' offense is as balanced and dynamic as there is in the country. And it doesn't hurt that Georgia has the best running back around in Todd Gurley. Still, the defense came up with a lot of big plays in that game and kept the Tigers in the contest during the third quarter when Georgia could have gained control if the Clemson defensive unit didn't stand up physically, which it did.
In the second game, the numbers improved to 241 yards and 13 points allowed against an overmatched South Carolina State team. The Tigers also returned two interceptions for touchdowns, something the program had never done.
It's hard to take a ton from the win over the FCS team before the off week, but there is one important stat to look at with the defense's play so far: third-down efficiency. That is something Clemson's defense has struggled with for years; it got a little better at times last year, but when it struggled, it really struggled (see: South Carolina).
In two games, the opponents are 11-for-32 on third down. That's a pretty good percentage, and it's a stat that is huge in football. If your defense can't get the other team off the field, the offense can't get on the field. And that's key for a team like Clemson that has an offense that is built on pace and rhythm.
That's a stat the defense will need to continue to focus on the rest of this season, and that starts Thursday at N.C. State.
Last year's game with the Wolfpack was be the perfect storm for Clemson to struggle defensively. The secondary had been depleted by injuries, and Mike Glennon was a terrific college quarterback (he's on an NFL roster for a reason and could be the starter for Tampa Bay before the season ends).
The Wolfpack have a new starter in Pete Thomas, who is running first-year head coach Dave Doeren's up-tempo offense. Thomas has completed 67.2 percent (39-of-58) of his passes for 449 yards, but he has thrown three interceptions with no touchdowns.
The deeper Clemson secondary, which includes many more playmakers, facing a first-year starter should add up to a much better performance for the Tigers on Thursday.
In that game in November, Mike Reed was on the visiting sideline, watching helplessly as his Wolfpack secondary was blitzed by Boyd. That could have made Dabo Swinney shy away from Reed when he was looking for a new secondary coach after last season.
But Swinney seems to have made the right choice with Reed, who replaced Charlie Harbison after he left to take over the same position at Auburn.
The choice of Harbison was always curious to me, and that played out on the field the past few years. Harbison is widely considered a terrific recruiter, but the defensive backs he coached never seemed to made strides, and that was seen last year, even before a rash of injuries hit his group.
The unit's play under his watch was filled with blown assignments and an inability to make a play on the ball. While some fretted over Harbison leaving for another program, it seemed like it would be a positive for Swinney's program going forward. That has proven true so far with Reed, who is a really impressive young coach.
Yes, he has much more talent to work with after a terrific recruiting effort last season (we're all still waiting to see Mackensie Alexander get on the field), but the players who are in the lineup at cornerback are mostly the same from recent seasons: Darius Robinson, Garry Peters, Martin Jenkins and Bashaud Breeland are all veterans in the rotation. They seem more prepared and stronger in their fundamentals than they were before. That's a testament to Reed.
Big loss … potentially
There have been injuries to the team already (Sam Cooper, Jordan Leggett, Chad Kelly), but the loss of Charone Peake last week to an ACL injury really hurts. Or it could.
Cooper should return later this season, while Leggett and Kelly already have. Peake won't, and that's tough.
The junior was off to a solid start and made a couple of important plays against Georgia, including one on a swing pass that set up the Tigers' first touchdown. Also, he's a veteran presence in Chad Morris' offense, and that also helps.
But there is still plenty of talent at the position, even though it's not the deepest group on Clemson's roster. Sammy Watkins, of course, is still there, along with Adam Humphries, and the Clemson coaches know exactly what they're going to get from those two.
Peake's injury gives several young players – Germone Hopper, T.J. Green and Mike Williams – a chance to step up and get more playing time.
It also puts more of a burden on Martavis Bryant, who really struggled against Georgia but played better against South Carolina State. He needs to live up to his potential and give the Tigers another dependable option at receiver, and Raleigh would be a good place for him to have a breakout game.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.
Statement game coming for defense
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