They raged. They roared. They played with pride, passion and precision that stirred memories of that old-time religion called Clemson Defensive Football.
This time, Syracuse discovered the wrath of Clemson’s defense and its stingier-than-Scrooge characteristics, and the old-timers in the house might have been thinking, ‘Hey, I have seen this before.”
They have ... more than 25 or 30 years ago in the days that guys such as Jeff Davis, Terry Kinard and Michael Dean Perry patrolled the green acres at Frank Howard Field.
Good thing, too, for the Tigers.
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With the offense again sputtering like a jalopy in need of an overhaul, Clemson needed high-octane defense to escape with a 16-6 win against the Orange on a homecoming Saturday night in Death Valley.
In this day and age that yards and points are cheap and offense captures the headlines – and nowhere has that, until recently, been more true than at Clemson – the Tigers’ defensive exploits of 2014 caught most by surprise. Sure, All-American end Vic Beasley returned to rewrite the record book for sacks, and the lineup is stacked with seniors, but that’s the unit that surrendered 30 or more points five times last season and opened this year with a dismal performance against Georgia.
Granted, this four-game streak has not come against offensive powerhouses, yet some of the numbers defy reality against any caliber of opponent. Foes have converted third-down plays a miniscule 22.9 percent of their opportunities for the season and nine of 61 over the past four games.
“I’ve never seen any streak like that,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Don’t forget the 14 tackles-for-loss against Boston College or limiting Boston College to 120 yards rushing – almost 196 below the team average.
What’s going on here?
“We’re talking ownership,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “It’s a complete team effort.”
And here’s a scary thought for opponents; Jarrett sees the Tigers’ defense continuing to improve.
Listen to him; his teammates do. He is the heart and soul of the Tigers, and he has drawn comparisons to Michael Dean Perry, perhaps the best of the parade of outstanding defensive tackles to wear orange.
At 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds, Jarrett is a tad short and a bit light for the prototype defensive tackle the pros covet, but ignoring him would be a mistake. Ask Boston College coach Steve Addazio.
“No. 50 ... nobody has blocked him,” Addazio said. “Not Florida State, not Georgia, nobody.”
To borrow a thought from the Carolina Panthers in discussing former Packers nose tackle Gilbert Brown, facing Jarrett is like blocking a stump.
This is a guy who barely drew a mention in Clemson’s recruiting class of 2011 that produced Sammy Watkins. Other than the Tigers, only Mississippi State showed much interest despite a high school career in Conyers, Ga., that included 198 tackles and 27.5 sacks in his final two seasons.
Jarrett got into football naturally. He is the son of Jesse Tuggle, an outstanding linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, and his mentor is Ray Lewis, the recently retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker destined for the hall of fame.
“Ray Lewis has been with me since I was five years old,” he said. “He isn’t my biological uncle, but he has always been there for me. Just seeing players like them helped my motivation and setting goals. I want to be a great player like they were.”
He’s getting there.
Syracuse came to town with a freshman quarterback making his second start, not an ideal scenario to challenge Clemson’s defense that, Jarrett said, is reaping the rewards for its offseason work.
“During spring ball and (preseason) camp, we knew if we came together and did our job, we could be special,” he said. “Third downs are definitely a key. We’re emphasizing getting off the field and if (the front four) can get a push, we’re going to be successful. It’s a win-win.”
Their goals? Top five nationally in every defensive category, Jarrett said. “We’re trying to be great,” linebacker Stephone Anthony added.
They took another step in that direction Saturday. And they needed to.
With freshman sensation Deshaun Watson sidelined until at least the middle of November with a broken finger, the Clemson offense is stuck in neutral. The touted unit fumbled away one touchdown and another bobble cost the Tigers a field goal in the first half Saturday, then struggled to cash-in field goals after getting set up with short fields in the second.
One game, or perhaps two, of offensive woes against so-so opposition might be explained, but the Syracuse game made three and that looks like a trend. Until the fourth quarter Saturday, the Tigers had scored two offensive touchdowns in three games since Watson’s injury, a statistic every bit as disturbing as the defensive numbers are sparkling.
As they should, the coaches put a positive “found-a-way-to-win” spin on the Tigers’ fifth consecutive triumph, and Jarrett said the defense will not be resting on its laurels. “We’ve got room to improve,” he said. “That keeps up going.”
Tougher tests – Georgia Tech and South Carolina – await in November, and offensive improvement is a must for Clemson to reach double-figures in wins again. But a defense that never rests is keeping the ship on course for now.