Strong, hard-hitting defense.
Reliable special teams.
Clemson has the look of a complete team, and that was on display again Saturday in upstate New York.
This program has moved past the days of an anemic offense teamed with a solid defense (2010) or a high-flying offense with not much defense at all (2011).
No, this year's team appears to have it all, and Syracuse was the latest team to experience that Saturday to the tune of 49-14.
The Tigers dominated early and – except for the third quarter – often, and they were in control other than a portion of the third quarter when things went off the rails for the offense a bit.
But the defense stayed on the rails and had yet another terrific performance. It was surprisingly, really, to look at the postgame statistics and see that the defense gave up 323 rushing yards (maybe that's because 122 of those yards came on two plays – one early in the second quarter and one at the end of the game in garbage time). Syracuse averaged 6.7 yards per carry throughout the game, but take out those two plays, and that average drops to 4.4. That's not bad against a team that likes to run as much as Syracuse does and has such a good run-blocking offensive line.
The Tigers' defensive front stood up to that line physically and came up with four more sacks and many more quarterback pressures.
The defense had a couple of nice stops when it was 35-14 and it looked like the Orange were trying to get back in the game a little bit.
That's what a complete team does.
The offense picks up its game when it has to in a shootout (see: the Georgia game), and the defense steps up its play when the offense is off a bit (see: N.C. State). On Saturday, the offense set the tone early with a dominant first half, and the defense did its thing to keep the Orange in check.
Clemson did nothing, really, on offense in the third quarter and still finished with 624 yards of offense – 466 passing and 158 rushing. The defense only allowed 74 passing yards (we know who the real No. 10 in this game was now, by the way). And the special teams were solid yet again. Adam Humphries did a good job on his returns, and the coverage teams were so smothering that memories of all the bad coverage plays of recent seasons are fading away. Coaches talk all the time about playing well in all three phases and winning all three phases. The Tigers did just that.
That's what a complete team does.
A big part of being a complete team is being smart.
And a huge part of being smart is not turning the ball over and not committing penalties.
Yes, Tajh Boyd threw his first two interceptions of the year on a couple of fluky plays, but neither really came back to hurt Clemson (again, the defense helping the offense). Even with those mistakes the Tigers won the turnover battle for the fifth straight game as the defense forced four – all on interceptions (another sign of defensive growth because last year, the secondary was a huge liability for this team).
Turnovers win and lose games, and this Clemson team has kept them under control throughout this season. If that continues, the winning should, as well.
Also, Clemson had just three penalties while Syracuse had eight. Three penalties on the road is an impressive number. It shows the maturity this team has as it went into a somewhat hostile environment and didn't get rattled.
Syracuse's players talked a lot during the week … a lot … about what they were going to do and how the Carrier Dome was going to be too much for Clemson to overcome. But the Tigers quieted any of those hopes early, and even when the Orange made their mini-run, there was no real visible frustration on Clemson's sideline. The Tigers just played the next play.
That's the mark of a smart, mature team.
Terrific on third down
I'm going to keep harping on this stat and writing about it each week until it proves to not be true, but a huge part of the Clemson defense's success is its play on third downs.
Throughout the past few years, the defense struggled on third downs and couldn't get off the field, especially in key spots. That allowed the opponents to make big plays, keep drives going and frustrate the Tigers and their fans.
That's not the case this year.
Syracuse was 4-of-20 on third downs Saturday, dropping Clemson's opponents to 20-of-82 for the season. That is a 24.3 percent success rate, and that is championship caliber defense.
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.
Tigers have look of a complete team
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