Key stat leaning Clemson’s way on defense

Anyone who has read my columns on CUTigers.com the past few years knows there are two key statistics in my mind that help determine who wins and who loses a game: turnovers and third-down efficiency.

Teams can put up all kinds of stats, and most stats can be misleading at times or manipulated by whatever you want to believe, but those two usually play a big part in a game’s winner.

The Clemson defense certainly has forced its share of turnovers (13 through eight games to sit at plus-three in turnover margin), but it has been absolutely terrific on third downs. And that has led to a dominant unit this season.

Clemson’s defense leads the nation in third-down percentage, allowing opponents to convert just 23 percent of its tries. The Tigers also lead the nation in tackles for loss per game at 9.8, and that has helped put the offenses in the third-and-long situations that are so difficult to convert.

Clemson’s defense, which just a few seasons ago couldn’t seem to get off the field in key third-down situations, has controlled its opponents on third downs the past few weeks. N.C. State, Louisville, Boston College and Syracuse have converted just 9-of-61 third-down tries, and that has helped the Tigers win those four games, including the past three when the offense hasn’t been able to do much because of a rash of injuries.

Perfect time for an off week
Clemson needed a break, and the off week came at the perfect time for this team to get ready for the stretch run.

After eight games, including some that have been extremely physical, the rest should help the Tigers get refreshed and ready for their final four games. That opens Thursday at Wake Forest. Then comes a trip to Georgia Tech before home games against Georgia State and South Carolina.

Clemson’s defense has been phenomenal throughout the season, except for the second half at Georgia and the second half against North Carolina. And the Tigers certainly can win their final four games and go to a special bowl by playing defense the way they have the past few weeks.

But Clemson fans certainly will feel better about things at Georgia Tech and against South Carolina if the offense starts clicking again. Does it need Deshaun Watson to return to do that? Probably. Cole Stoudt has struggled this season in what was supposed to be his one shining season as the starter. But the senior has made enough plays for wins over Louisville, Boston College and Syracuse.

The Tigers probably don’t need Watson to beat Wake Forest, and it’s not likely that he would play. But it certainly would be good to see him back in the lineup instead of waiting for the trip to Georgia Tech … if he’s healthy enough to be back against the Demon Deacons.

Suddenly, a good combination?
Thursday nights typically have been a nightmare for the Clemson football program.

Clemson has not played well on Thursday nights, and some of its worst performances in the past couple of decades have come in those settings.

The Tigers are 4-9 on Thursday nights, including 1-2 at home. But they have turned that around recently.

That was especially true last year when Clemson beat N.C. State 26-14 and Georgia Tech 55-31. So maybe the Tigers have moved past some of the program’s Thursday night woes.

The program certainly has moved past its problems with Wake Forest. While the Demons routinely made life difficult for former head coach Tommy Bowden and realistically offered the final straw for his job when they beat the Tigers12-7 in 2008, Dabo Swinney’s teams haven’t had those kinds of problems.

Clemson is 5-0 against Wake Forest since Swinney took over, and four of those games haven’t been close. The Tigers have scored 98 points the past two years against the Demon Deacons.

Without Watson, it’s not likely the Clemson offense will put up those kinds of numbers Thursday, but don’t believe the talk this week if it begins that “Wake Forest always gives Clemson trouble.”


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