Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford knows the Tigers defense can complete a major, two-year turnaround few could have foreseen the last time they played in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson’s defense was exposed after the 2011 season, unable to halt a relentless West Virginia attack in a 70-33 beatdown at the Orange Bowl. The points were a college football postseason record and led to endless string of one-liners at Clemson’s expense.
The 12th-ranked Tigers (10-2) hope for a different, more successful showing this time around when they play No. 7 Ohio State (12-1) in the Orange Bowl on Friday.
While the jokes hurt, more devastating, Crawford recalled, was the emptiness on campus upon their return home. Crawford found many of the students were embarrassed and disappointed at the awful showing that night.
“I don’t want that to happen again,” Crawford said Friday. “Every time we lose, the campus is just dead. People don’t want to talk to you.”
Crawford believes he and his defensive teammates have worked the past two years to correct their mistakes and remake themselves into a defense that brings the school pride. The group led the nation this year in tackles for loss and finished the regular season ranked 17th in scoring defense (21.1 points per game), up from 48th a year ago. The Tigers have improved from 63rd in overall defense in 2012 to 23rd this season, surrendering almost 50 fewer yards per game in 2013.
Crawford understands a strong showing against the Buckeyes might go a long way toward putting the West Virginia debacle to bed.
“I feel like our fans deserve that,” he said.
Not that the change on defense has come easily.
Clemson had a well-earned reputation the past few decades as one of the most consistent and stingiest defenses in college football. Coach Danny Ford build his 1981 national champions on the backs of players such as linebacker Jeff Davis and defensive end William “Refrigerator” Perry. Clemson send a host of standout defenders to the NFL after that, including Terry Kinard, Donnell Woolford, Michael Dean Perry, Ed McDaniel and Levon Kirkland.
Clemson’s defense remained a strength in coach Dabo Swinney’s first two full seasons in charge in 2009 and 2010.
“That’s when we had a bit of a change,” Swinney acknowledged. “We were real young.”
Clemson’s defensive problems were masked in 2011 by the high-flying attack of first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris, new quarterback Tajh Boyd and freshman receiver Sammy Watkins. The issues resurfaced when Clemson followed an 8-0 start with a 1-3 finish, then subsided after the Tigers held down Virginia Tech in a 38-10 ACC title-game win.
Crawford is unsure why things went so wrong against West Virginia. The Tigers got another jolt a week or so later when Swinney dismissed defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and brought in Oklahoma’s longtime defensive boss, Brent Venables.
Venables brought in a straightforward, stripped down accountability to his players. His message was simple, safety Robert Smith says: “Do the job you’re supposed to do.”
Vic Beasley, Clemson’s other starting defensive end, has been among the national sack leaders all season and finished with 12.
The transition hasn’t always moved ahead smoothly. The Tigers had no answers for ACC champion Florida State in a 51-14 defeat last October where they gave up the most points to an opponent in Death Valley history. Clemson also struggled to contain dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw, who rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers 31-17 loss to rival South Carolina last month.
Smith said the team has moved past that bitter loss — it gave the Gamecocks an unprecedented five-game series win streak — and focused on the chance they have to make a final impact.
Boyd was asked if he expected a high-scoring, shootout with Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller, and said he was ready for anything. Then he hinted that maybe the Tigers’ defense wouldn’t let things get out of hand this time.
“Hopefully, it won’t, because our defense is good enough to compete at that level,” Boyd said.