Winning with defense

CLEMSON – It had all the markings of a day you'd rather forget. In the end, it was a day Clemson fans just won't remember well.

In the grand scheme, that's probably fine. No. 3 Clemson 24, Boston College 14 won't win style points with national pundits or poll voters. But given the way Clemson fans felt midway through the third quarter – anger, frustration and a "here we go again" kind of dread – being uneasy about a win is highly preferable.

As the fourth quarter began with Boston College – you know, that team who was playing here before Florida State – holding a 14-10 lead, the rumblings of "Clemsoning" roiled in heads and stomachs around Memorial Stadium.

Wouldn't it be just like the old Clemson to lose to an unheralded BC team the week before Florida State rolled into town, with ESPN's College GameDay due for a return visit to trumpet the ACC's 10th-ever top-10 showdown?

The old Clemson? Yes.

This Clemson? Nope.

Week after week, this Clemson proves that it is different.

That it can win without firing on all cylinders. That it can win with defense.

That wasn't the case two years ago, when the Tigers rolled to 8-0 before melting down thanks to a lack of focus and an inability to stop potent offenses when it mattered.

Or last fall, when defensive woes were critically important in losses to Florida State and South Carolina.

This team has a different feel – and a feel that it can be special.

Saturday, the Tigers fought through an effort that was far from their best, on a day that was almost telegraphed to produce a disappointing result.

"We didn't play great in some spots, especially offensively," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

"To be a great team, you've got to win games like that. They're not always going to be easy." Earlier this week, Swinney insisted his team wouldn't look ahead to Florida State, saying that "you don't play well, lose this game, Florida State ain't the story on Monday. It's how bad you played against Boston College."

That was certainly the story in the first half. The Tigers outgained BC 280-168, but were utterly sloppy in all facets of the game.

Steady senior kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a chip-shot field goal, and another try went awry on a bad hold.

Then there was the fact that Clemson appeared to be playing with grease-covered gloves. Boyd fumbled twice on the opening drive, but both were recovered.

Early in the second quarter, the Tigers appeared to be building offensive momentum with Zac Brooks taking a screen pass into BC territory. But he fumbled the ball away, and BC's Steele Divitto recovered.

Midway through the quarter, it was Rod McDowell's turn, bobbling the ball away at the BC 33 and killing another promising drive.

Only Catanzaro's 35-yard boot as time expired prevented Clemson from its first scoreless half since Nov. 6, 2010, the waning days of the Billy Napier era.

Boyd had 207 yards passing, but wasn't sharp: passes were too high, too low, thrown into tight spots.

Still, offensive coordinator Chad Morris insisted the halftime locker room was calm.

"There was no panic at all," he said. "Everything we were calling was working. We were just killing ourselves."

And just when the Tigers got momentum, they immediately gave it back.

Boyd's 48-yard touchdown toss to Sammy Watkins down the right sideline gave Clemson its first lead, at 10-7. It was the exact same call, which Boyd touted as a sign of his team's confidence. "I think that shows a sign of the maturity of this team," he said. "Previously, a couple years ago, we get a penalty, we self-destruct."

That resolve was tested on the very next play. BC wideout Alex Amidon burned freshman safety Jayron Kearse on a double move that he turned into a 69-yard touchdown reception.

Clemson's lead? It lasted all of 11 seconds. It was up to the Tigers' defense to pick up the slack.

In years past, that'd have been a laughable request.

Saturday, the defensive line stood tall. On second and 8 from the BC 26, the line swarmed Andre Williams for a five-yard loss.

With the Death Valley sound system blaring "Jump Around," BC's offensive line committed consecutive false starts.

On third and 23 from the 11, Williams was swarmed by the entire line, allowing a punt that left Clemson with excellent field position at the BC 48.

The Tigers obliged with an efficient drive, ending with Boyd's 13-yard touchdown draw for a 17-14 lead.

Then, the defense made its biggest play of the season.

With Boston College pinned back deep, linebacker Tony Steward – in the game for Spencer Shuey – came free on a blitz and sacked Rettig. The ball sat there on the turf like a shiny coin; Beasley scooped it up and rumbled 13 yards for a touchdown.

"I saw the ball laying there," Beasley said, "and I was like, ‘Man, I'm going to go pick this up!'" Clemson had life, and breathing room – and a 24-14 lead.

The Eagles' wings were clipped. They were done. It marked the fifth consecutive game that Clemson has held an opponent to 14 points or fewer, the longest such streak since the final five games of the Danny Ford era in 1989.

Led by Beasley, who has established himself as the next great defensive line, the Tigers' line is dominant.

It held Williams – who entered as the nation's leading rusher – to a pedestrian 70 yards on 24 carries.

"We had to go through growing pains last year and the year before," Swinney said. "Look into the roster, you can see we've grown up a little bit. There are the same players who were here two years ago – they're just juniors now instead of freshmen and sophomores."

The same could be said for the Tigers' program as a whole. Would this team have won this game two years ago? Maybe. Maybe not.

They had the resolve to cast aside their demons Saturday – and as a result, they get what will likely be the third top-5 matchup in ACC history one week from now.

This Clemson team will be tested again and again. But they keep answering the challenges. That's all you can ask.

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