For first time all season, Clemson faces a defensive line as good as its own
CLEMSON — Kelly Bryant has no hesitation. He doesn’t even have to think about an answer.
“Oh yeah,” the Clemson quarterback said when asked if the defensive line he faces every day in practice sets him up for success on game days. “It just makes the game a little bit easier ... what we go through in practice, I feel like it helps us on Saturdays.”
For weeks and months, Clemson’s defensive line has been on the receiving end of national hoopla with praise showering down on defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins.
Every day since August, Bryant and his offensive line have been battle-tested by one of the nation’s most daunting defensive lines. And every week since September, Clemson’s defensive line has outmatched those of its opponents.
This week, the playing field levels.
N.C. State has a behemoth line of its own — one backed by national sensation Bradley Chubb, a defensive end and a finalist for the nation’s most outstanding defender award. Perhaps for the first time all season, No. 6 Clemson (No. 4 in the College Football Playoff) will play a team with a defensive line on par with its own when the Tigers travel to No. 20 N.C. State.
Chubb is ranked No. 7 in the nation for sacks, with 7½ sacks through eight games. Austin Bryant, Clemson’s leader, ranks No. 15 with 6½. Chubb is ranked No. 2 in tackles for loss, Bryant No. 8. Clemson leads the country in team sacks. N.C. State is No. 32. Clemson slides in at No. 6 for team tackles for loss. The Wolfpack are No. 31.
This N.C. State line, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says, will be the best the Tigers have seen.
“They’re a really, really good football team. That’s why it comes down to these two teams,” Swinney said of the ACC Atlantic showdown. “They’re definitely the best D-line that we’ve played. All four of their starters are NFL guys and they really play about seven or eight guys. They’ve got a lot of depth there.”
To Clemson and Kelly Bryant’s advantage, the Tigers boast the best offensive line Swinney has had since he has been at Clemson. But Swinney has challenged his team to cut down on allowed sacks. By Swinney’s count, the running backs group and the quarterbacks themselves have given up 4½ sacks each, while the line has only relinquished four. This time last year, Clemson was sacked 21 times all season. That figure is at 18 with a month of the regular season and the postseason left to play.
Against other less-imposing teams, any sort of lapse that got Kelly Bryant sacked ended up not costing the Tigers terribly. But this week, against this line at N.C. State’s home stadium with the division on the line, is a different story.
The margin for error is razor thin.
“I think the emotions are the same every day,” said Clemson tight end Milan Richard when he was asked if he takes more pride in blocking this week. “You don’t let the highs get too high and the lows get too low.
“But talking about them, they are great up front. I would say their front seven is very talented.”