The group has given up just 30 points in the past three games for Clemson (5-2, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) and made game-saving stops the last two weeks to beat Louisville and Boston College.
Clemson's defense was largely a college football punchline the past three years in losses like its 70-33 defeat against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl after the 2011 season.
"Having us on the field to save the game or keep the game in our favor, we like those situations," safety Jayron Kearse said.
That hasn't always been the case. The Tigers were a program known for its high-flying, quick-tempo attack that could put the game out of reach by halftime. While Clemson's defense held on, it took a back seat the past three years to offensive stars like ACC touchdown record-holder in quarterback Tajh Boyd, NFL No. 4 overall draft pick in receiver Sammy Watkins and two-time 1,000-yard rusher in tailback Andre Ellington.
When the defense had the chance to step up in big spots during that span, it did not. There was the 2011 Orange Bowl embarrassment when it surrendered a postseason record of points in a 70-33 loss to West Virginia.
Last season in a top-five showdown at Death Valley, Clemson was stomped by Florida State 51-14 — the most points an opponent's ever scored at Death Valley. Even starting this year, the Tigers wore out in the fourth quarter at Georgia as the Bulldogs rolled up 201 yards and three touchdowns of their 45-21 victory.
Things have changed dramatically since with the Tigers permitting only 253 yards a game their past six contests. They'll try and keep that going this week against Syracuse (3-4, 1-1).
Clemson's highlights have come the past two week with defensive stops to preserve wins. Louisville drove to the Tigers' 1 before defensive lineman DeShawn Williams batted away a fourth-down pass in a 23-17 victory in front of a frantic Death Valley crowd in the last minute. This past Saturday, Boston College moved 58 yards to Clemson's 26 before forcing four incompletions in the final two minutes of a 17-13 win.
"If we're in those situations and a team is able to score the game-winning drive on a defense, that shows that we're really not as good as we think we are," Kearse said. "But two weeks back to back, we were able get a stop, get our offense the ball so we could take a knee and win the game."
For Clemson, it starts up front with senior defensive end Vic Beasley and defensive tackles in Williams and Grady Jarrett. Beasley has eight sacks this season and set the school's all-time career record in that category with his 29th to move past ex-NFL standouts Michael Dean Perry and the late Gaines Adams on Clemson's list.
"They don't even like to let them get the pass off so that kind of helps us having them up front," Kearse said.
Clemson had four sacks and 14 tackles for loss in limiting Boston College to 120 yards rushing after the Eagles came in averaging more than 315 yards a game on the ground — an effort team website called the "Boston D Party."
"I'm glad they're on our side," Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris said.
Especially this season where Clemson's offense has lost its punch and several key performers, most notably rising freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson who is out at least two more games with a broken finger. Top rusher Adam Choice and leading tight end Jordan Leggett injured knees against Boston College with Choice out for the season.
Safety T.J. Green said the defense will keep on doing what it does best, helping Clemson win games.
"When we're out there, we're just playing comfortably, we're playing together, we trust everybody on the defense to do their job," he said. "It makes it easier for everybody to just do what they're supposed to do."
Syracuse enters with some confidence after ending a four-game losing streak with a 30-6 win over Wake Forest last week. Defensive end Robert Welsh said the win made the Orange 1-0 in the season's second half and gave them something to build on against Clemson.
"Now, it's on to Clemson, try and go down there, they're a real good team, and try and go 2-0," he said.
Kearse believes the Tigers defense will be ready to take another step toward its goal.
"We have guys that are hungry," Kearse said. "Being number five right now is not good because we want to end number one."
Clemson's defense grabbing headlines
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