When asked about Clemson's 27-17 loss to South Carolina last November, the Tigers' second-year defensive coordinator told the truth.
"We didn't play good," Venables said. "We didn't cover them good, we didn't tackle them good. We didn't pressure them good."
Clemson's defense didn't do anything well. The Tigers were outgained 444-328. South Carolina held the ball for 39:28. And Clemson's high-powered offense took just 19 second-half snaps.
12 months later, Venables feels more confident about his defense as No.6 Clemson prepares for Saturday's 7 p.m. visit to No.10 South Carolina. But he knows it won't be easy, regardless.
"They're not Johnny come lately when it comes to winning," he said. "There's been a recipe for success for them and it's been difficult for opposing teams to crack the code. That's the challenge for us and we're excited about that challenge. And it's a difficult one but one our guys are looking forward to."
Clemson's 2013 defense is much improved. The Tigers are 18th nationally in scoring defense (20.2 ppg) and 27th in total defense (353.8 ypg). Saturday will be its biggest test yet, however.
"I think there's excitement. They recognize what's at stake," Venables said. "Going on the road, you've got to have that road dog mentality. Your back's going to be against the wall, it's going to be a hostile environment. It's a great challenge on one hand, because they'll be ready for it. The flip side, if you've got the right mentality, that's a fun, inviting atmosphere to be in, too. It'll be a big stage, a huge rivalry game, and again, one that I know our guys are incredibly excited about and looking forward to the challenge."
Third-down efficiency will be crucial. A year ago, the Gamecocks converted 11 of 21 third down attempts. One in particular was a backbreaker: with South Carolina leading 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter and facing a third and 19, backup quarterback Dylan Thompson scrambled for 20 yards, keeping the clock ticking.
"They're smart," Venables said. "They want to see what you're doing and they do a lot of check with me at the sideline they want to be in the right plays. And it's like facing a Georgia Tech with a really good quarterback and really good receivers. You do the math. We know how crazy Georgia Tech drives you. They do that all the way up. I'm the last guy I need to remind myself, third and 19 last year with the backup QB that ran the draw for a critical first down. That drives you crazy. That's why they win."
This year, the Tigers are allowing opponents to convert just 29.6 percent of third-down attempts.
"We were pretty good last year going into the game. We weren't as good as we are this year but we're probably take somewhere in mid to low 30s, but we didn't play good.
"So would I expect to be better? Yeah. We need to be. That's the plan. Right there on the first two, three, four calls of third down defense, I'm going to make this the good calls, not the bad calls. So that's a huge part of the game, the management, our execution, our discipline. A lot of things have to come into factor with third downs."
How will Clemson be more effective on third down? Stop South Carolina's run game and dominate at the line of scrimmage.
"You've got to win at the line of scrimmage. If they're chewing clock that means they're probably running the ball very effectively," he said. " You don't have to chew up a whole bunch of yards to run the ball effectively. Coach Spurrier is very patient. They win a lot of tight ballgames through the years. Not just this year. Since he's been at South Carolina, that's been his mode of operation. His quarterbacks are extensions of him in regards to the intelligence they play with, trying to manipulate the defense.
"Third down is critical. We were somewhere in the 50-percentile range (last year). That was a big part of the game. We didn't convert many third downs on offense and we didn't stop many on defense. That's a recipe for disaster. That said it's also a recipe for disaster if you don't own the line of scrimmage. And we didn't do that either last year. There's a lot of critical factors in this football game, and third down is obviously a huge part of that."
Venables covered plenty more ground in his Tuesday talk with reporters.
On South Carolina senior quarterback Connor Shaw: "First and foremost, he's got great toughness. He's got an incredible will to win and his track record speaks for itself. He's a gamer, and he's highly skilled. He's got great athletic ability, can extend plays with his feet, and makes things happen. Always keeps his vision down the field. Got good instincts as a quarterback. Brings great leadership to their football team."
Does Shaw get enough credit? "I don't know. Around these parts he gets a ton of attention and credit. This year he's had a couple of games he's been banged up. If you're looking for an explanation why nationally you don't hear as many people talking about him. But I think anyone who's had an opportunity to watch him play will have a high opinion of him."
On Thompson's perceived lack of mobility: "I don't see that. They've got a lot of designed runs for him. The guy runs well. I've faced the guy that can't move. And that's not Dylan Thompson. I think he runs like Cole Stoudt. However you think he runs, I think that's how he runs. That's who he is. That's pretty good. He's very mobile. Anytime a guy has mobility that can extend plays and run some designed QB run game, be an actual threat, it always causes you issues defensively."
On stopping tailback Mike Davis: "You've got to play physical at the line of scrimmage, second level, linebackers, you've got to fit things well, and you've got to tackle. These guys run with a great deal of determination and toughness and run behind the pads well, so I don't know if (Davis) still leads the SEC in rushing or not, but he did for a good while. Davis is a terrific runner."
Does Davis compare with anyone (hint, hint): "Not that I can think of. He's really good. Probably a little bit stronger than Andre Ellington, with that kind of explosiveness and ability to take it to the house at any time. "
On Steve Spurrier as a playcaller: "He's a good playcaller. Great success, and he's smart with what he does. Simple to a certain degree. Incredibly effective . His QB's are usually an extension of him. The QB run game is an element that's been added the last few years and that's given them a huge weapon in running that offense effectively."
On Spurrier being unpredictable: "He sure will. So, yeah, you've got to be ready for those situations as well. He's aggressive, has that go-for-broke attitude as a playcaller, and that's reflective of his personality."
On if Clemson is ready for a four-quarter game: "We haven't just blown people out. We've played a number of tight games, deep into the third quarter, where it's a couple of score game. So whether or not it's the fourth quarter, I think our guys have been battle tested that way, shown the propensity to make plays, come up with stops and make some turnovers in some tight games to help us get more of a comfortable margin. I expect it to be a great football game. And a 60-minute game at that. That's just how he and they, and we've played a lot this year as well."
On an improved secondary this year: "I think we've got different corners than what we played in that game, as far as starters are concerned. We're another year experienced, and playing a little more consistently, majoring in the minors, doing all the little things much better. We've got to play better."
On rivalry games and losing streaks: "I've lost three in a row, too, it's not fun. I've won five in a row. Believe it or not, the world didn't come to an end. You can flip the script, believe it or not."
On what the rivalry means after being here for going-on two seasons: "It means a great deal to the people of South Carolina. Long, storied, tradition-rich rivalry, one that the people of South Carolina are incredibly passionate about. A rivalry that is incredibly well-respected nationally as well. A lot of good football players will be on the field Saturday, and have played in this game for many years. Some deep-seated hatred that's involved, but that's most rivalries Most people tell you they just want to beat their rival and lose the rest and that's OK. So we could have lost to The Citadel last week and beaten South Carolina. Means a lot. Always does. It'll be exciting."
On the ebbs and flows of rivalries: "Most probably aren't one-sided. It ebbs and flows. Most have to do with coaches, players, luck, sometimes it has to do with a combination of all those things, how the game, the series is going. I've been on both sides of different streaks where it's gone back and forth.
"At Oklahoma you had 2 rivals, Oklahoma State and Texas. I dealt with a rival game twice a year. I know what it's like on the good side of it, beating Texas five years in a row. They were going to shut the Longhorn program down, would never turn it around for the next 100 years. That's the extremist side of it, and when you've lost three in a row, you better win this year or heads will start rolling. That's part of the gig."
Nothing sweet about it
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