Brent Venables had a problem this week with his defense.
Specifically, Clemson’s defensive players were so locked in on Georgia Tech’s offense, and so motivated for a nationally-televised Thursday night game, that they wouldn’t let the scout team do its job.
Finally, defensive coordinator Venables had to order some of the linemen to allow themselves to be blocked, just so that the scout-team quarterback could attempt some passes and test the secondary’s preparation.
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Turns out sometimes you do play like you practice. The fifth-ranked Tigers held the Yellow Jackets to 22 yards, three first downs and no points at halftime. This one ended up a 26-7 victory, and the best reason Clemson failed to get the shutout was gifting Georgia Tech a touchdown drive with an off-sides penalty for a first down and pass interference.
"We weren’t perfect," Venables said post-game.
No, but they were pretty darn close for a long time. The Tigers were extra motivated by the constant reminders how long it had been since they won a road game against Georgia Tech. The last time they won at Bobby Dodd Stadium was 2003.
That "streak" question was the first one Venables got when he spoke with media Monday. Pretty much everyone associated with the program got that question, and you can take it for granted the coaches planted that seed continuously in meetings and practice.
Venables said it’s terrific Clemson’s seniors can say they stopped the streak. It’s the sort of thing that could help get them back in the playoffs after they lost to Alabama in the national championship game in January.
Head coach Dabo Swinney was proud to say a lot of Clemson teams have arrived at Bobby Dodd Stadium undefeated, but this was the first to depart without a loss. The Tigers are 4-0, and though they have yet to be the offensive juggernaut the talent would suggest, they have road wins at both Georgia Tech and Auburn, places that have been big trouble in the past.
Swinney pinpointed why that happened.
"At the end of the day our guys just won the matchups up-front," Swinney said. "If they can block you, you’re in for a long night. If they can’t block you, then they’re in for a long night."
Georgia Tech uses a triple-option offense that opposing teams don’t see frequently in this modern age of spread offense. So Clemson’s coaches set aside three days during the preseason camp to specifically review how to defend the option.
"No one sees the triple-option every day. It’s a tough offense to get ready for, especially in a short week," defensive end Christian Wilkins said. "We really took what we learned in camp, and the looks we got this week in practice, and they really transferred over to today."
If you are talented enough to be offered a football scholarship at Clemson, you are used to making big plays. So it’s a little counter-intuitive how the Tigers must prepare against Georgia Tech. It’s very much about disciplined, assignment football.
As Wilkins described, it gets monotonous to hit the fullback on every play, whether or not he’s getting the ball, but that’s the discipline necessary to defeat what the Yellow Jackets are looking to do.
"We had a couple of new guys on the defensive line who never played against it and most of our secondary hadn’t played against it," said linebacker Ben Boulware. "We only had three days (before the Thursday kickoff), so if we hadn’t gotten that extra work, we probably would have played like (garbage)."
So now there’s a bit of a give-back. Clemson has a huge home game Oct. 1 against third-ranked Louisville. Playing Thursday offers extra time to rest and prepare.
"We get a little break, and we’ll need all of it," Venables said. "It sounds like, and looks like, we’ll have our hands full. They’re playing great; probably as good as, if not better than, anybody in the country."