EXCLUSIVE: Defense Helping Tigers Find Different Ways to Win
CLEMSON, SC - Some have suggested Clemson's win at NC State last week wasn't exactly a thing of beauty, but nothing could be further from the truth for head coach Dabo Swinney.
"I love it. I'll take 11 more wins just like it. Sign me up right now," he said Tuesday at his news conference to preview Saturday's Homecoming game against Wake Forest.
While the No. 3 Tigers (3-0, 1-0 ACC) have developed a reputation for scoring points in bunches once coordinator Chad Morris' up-tempo offense hits warp speed, it was Brent Venables' defense that did the heavy lifting in Raleigh, NC.
Clemson held the Wolfpack to just seven points over the first 56 minutes and forced a critical fumble in NC State territory late in the third quarter that led to the first of two Tajh Boyd to Martavis Bryant touchdown passes to put the game away.
"That's why I'm excited about our team right now," Swinney said, "because we have found different ways to win and complemented each other at critical times ... so it's been a pretty complete effort by our football team these first three games."
The victory over NC State was Clemson's 11th consecutive double-digit win over an unranked opponent. Only No. 1 Alabama has a longer active streak with 21 in a row.
The Tigers' streak dates to its previous visit to Carter-Finley Stadium in 2011, when they lost to an unranked Wolfpack team.
This time, Clemson's defense recorded five sacks against NC State to run its total to 12 sacks through the first three games, the most for the Tigers over the first three games since the 1999 season.
"I love the attitude of our group of guys - their willingness to fight and handle adversity," Venables said. "You have to compete over and over and over. If we've been consistent about something through the first three games, you've really seen their willingness to work, their willingness to invest and their willingness to compete for four quarters."
With that, freshman defensive end Shaq Lawson said the defense is out to prove that Clemson football isn't just about high-octane offense anymore.
"If we show up and make big plays, people will change their thoughts about Clemson - they will think of us not just for the offense, but the defense, too," Lawson said.
The hometown product of Central, SC, and Daniel High School had a breakout game against the Wolfpack with 2.5 tackles for loss, including his first career sack. Lawson played more snaps (22) than any other defensive reserve and had the most tackles for loss by a Clemson true freshman lineman since Da'Quan Bowers had three in the 2008 Gator Bowl.
"Shaq is the best since I've been at Clemson, in my opinion, as a freshman," Swinney said. "He has a long way to go, but just where he is right now - mentally, physically, effort, understanding the whole big picture - I haven't seen a freshman like him."
But the Tigers' most disruptive defender against NC State was junior defensive end Vic Beasley, who had three sacks on the night. He now has five sacks on the season, which leads the ACC and ranks second in the nation in that category.
The Adairsville, GA, product led the Tigers with eight sacks last year, but played just 288 snaps all season because he was undersized for the defensive end position and was used almost exclusively in pass-rush situations.
This season, Beasley has gotten his weight up to 235 and made himself a legitimate every-down player.
"Everybody sees the stats and rushing the passer, but what Vic is not getting enough credit for is what he's doing for us in the run game," Swinney said. "He's sticking his nose in there, he's spoiling runs, he's doing a very good job, and he may make some plays that other guys can't make because he can run things down from behind. He's a very good player that's just kind of scraping the surface of what he can be as he continues to develop."
Anthony was named the ACC linebacker of the week after recording 16 stops versus NC State. He also has four tackles for loss on the season, and Clemson ranks fifth in the nation in tackles for loss per game (9.0) as a unit.
"We're 3-0, and (Anthony and Shuey) are a big reason for it," Swinney said. "They're playing really good. Spencer's just kind of picked up where he left off, and Stephone has really taken another step forward and is having a great year for us right now."
On the other side of the ball, Clemson's offense had some uncharacteristic sputters against NC State, particularly in the first half.
The Tigers had scored just 13 points until Boyd and Bryant hooked up for the first of their two touchdowns late in the third quarter and only had 220 yards of offense at halftime - although that's not a terrible total by most standards.
Boyd missed a handful of deep throws in the first three quarters that could've made the win much more comfortable, but still finished 24-of-37 for 244 yards passing and three touchdowns.
He attributed his slow start to being rusty after having not played significant snaps since the August 31 season opener against Georgia, as he played sparingly in the rout of South Carolina State prior to a bye week ahead of the NC State game.
"I just got thrown off my rhythm a little bit," Boyd said, "and in this offense and in the position that I'm in, rhythm is everything."
Boyd said he'd had to remind himself that the offense had taken a few games to find its stride during his previous two seasons as the starting quarterback, as well, and only needed to remain patient for that to happen again.
"We're on the right path right now," he said. "And once we get going, once we click, it's just like a freight train. There's not going to be any stopping or any slowing down, we're just going to keep rolling."