Lock It Down: Clemson D makes its case as country’s best
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson’s defense not only shut down Auburn — it left little doubt which side of the ball would lead its latest try for a national championship.
The Tigers (2-0), who stayed No. 3 in the latest rankings, had 11 sacks and held No. 15 Auburn to 117 total yards in a 14-6 victory on Saturday night.
Defensive end Austin Bryant, the fourth member of Clemson’s deep talented line led by Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, had four of the Tigers’ sacks and tied the team’s single-game mark.
The 11 takedowns were the second most in team history (12 against Furman in 1996) and the most in a game in 13 years. Clemson stands second nationally and first among Power Five teams in overall defense at just over 118 yards a game.
“Just really fun to watch,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, a big smile on his face.
The Tigers’ national championship run was led by its incredible, dynamic offensive stars in quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Mike Williams. Clemson averaged nearly 40 points and more than 500 yards a game on the way to its first national title in 35 years.
But with Watson and Williams first-round NFL draft picks and five other starters gone from that group, Clemson’s defense asserted itself so far this season — and made the case it might be the best in the country with its performance against Auburn.
Auburn, a trendy preseason pick to topple Alabama in the Southeastern Conference, had the chance to open a big lead early before Death Valley got rocking .
Jarrett Stidham led Auburn on a long, starting drive that took them all the way to the Clemson 1. But Clemson’s defense kept Auburn out of the end zone, the visiting Tigers settling for a field goal.
Two series later, Clemson was in trouble after Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble left Auburn set up just 10 yards from a touchdown. Once more, Clemson’s defense held strong and limited Auburn to a second field goal.
“This game’s all about momentum,” said linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, who led Clemson with 14 tackles. “Being able to make those plays helped out the offense and special teams. It says a lot about this team.”
O’Daniel, a fifth-year senior, believes the defense will keep making such statements all season long.
They understand what the team lost on offense — two-time 1,000-yard rusher Wayne Gallman, all-time school receptions leader Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett and emotional leader in center Jay Guillermo are also national champions not around this fall — and, while they have confidence in the newcomers, it could take some time before they’re clicking the way last year’s group did.
“We’ve got to look out for each other,” O’Daniel said.
Bryant made a name for himself two years ago when the freshman came in for injured starter Shaq Lawson and held his own with eight tackles in a 37-17 national semifinal win over Oklahoma. He figured to have a starting job locked up when a foot injury in August cost him six games. He played fewer than 250 snaps the rest of the season, recovering from the foot problem.
Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound junior, had few issues getting through and around Auburn blockers on Saturday. He finished off the effort by sacking Stidham on third and fourth downs with the Auburn passer desperate to make something happen.
“This just shows that we’ve answered a lot of questions, like can we handle adversity,” Bryant said. “This was our first real test and I feel like we stood right up in the face of adversity and we did well.”
The Tigers will have their hands full next week when they head to No. 14 Louisville and try and slow down Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Clemson has won its past three with the Cardinals by a total of 16 points. Jackson has accounted for 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns in two wins this season.
“Our players are going to enjoy this one, but for us coaches, we think about Lamar Jackson and that group over at Louisville,” Venables said. “We’re going to have our hands full next week.”
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