Ultimately, the challenge was to emulate if not mirror last year’s Clemson defense, which was the stingiest, most miserly in the nation once the final numbers were posted.
After three games this season, there’s evidence of a trend, though nobody seems eager to declare this defense a carbon copy, particularly with the stretch in the schedule that begins Oct. 3 with Notre Dame.
“Last year’s defense was really good, but they were able to do it all year,” freshman defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said Tuesday. “We still have a long way to go to be closely compared to last year’s defense. I think we have the capability to do that.”
Wilkins quickly has become a dependable component, teaming with Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano as keystones of a line that lost every starter. And in the win last Thursday at Louisville, defense maintained order until the offense discovered a rhythm. Louisville’s first five possessions netted 24 yards and five punts.
Louisville was credited with 19 rushing yards on 28 carries, none longer than eight yards, and finished 2 of 14 on third down.
“We stoned them a couple of times,” Wilkins said. “I did not know that we had done that well.”
Through three games, Clemson is 12th in total defense at 260.7 yards per game, and ninth in yards per play at 3.93.
“I think we accomplished what we wanted to do,” Watkins said. “The main focus was just getting the ball back for the offense.”
Clemson dodged a bullet when, trailing by three in the final minutes, Louisville hit a 23-yard pass to the Clemson 37. After an incompletion on first down, end Kevin Dodd sacked Kyle Bolin at the 41. The threat ended when Bolin’s third-down pass was intercepted by Jadar Johnson.
Louisville’s modest success through the air didn’t bother defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Bolin was under siege much of the game – Clemson totaled five sacks among the seven tackles for loss.
“I don’t know how good we are up front, but in three games we’ve won the line of scrimmage, so that’s a positive,” Venables said.
“Thought it would be key last week, and it was, and it’s going to be key again,” he said. “We’ll have to play a lot better than we did to have a chance.”
Depth at inside linebacker and end aside, Venables believes he has a handle on this group, “what guys can do and where we’re limited.” Experience and repetition are the only solutions, and Notre Dame won’t allow a mulligan.
“The toughness, the physicality, the execution,” Venables said of his line. “The disruption that they caused was a huge reason we were able to keep (Louisville) off balance. We got off the field.
“The first five or six drives it was bam, bam, bam and we were off the field. Yeah, we played well.”
There’s always work on technique, which will be why corner Mackensie Alexander will spend every free moment studying the Notre Dame receivers, trying to discover an advantage or find a tell.
“They’ve, probably, got the best receiver in America,” said Venables of junior Will Fuller (15 receptions for 397 yards and five touchdowns). “He might be the best there is. He gets my vote for the best I’ve watched on tape, by a landslide.”
And while Clemson is third nationally in defensive pass efficiency (80.36), and 13th with five interceptions, Alexander would benefit from another game from the front like last Thursday’s.
“If that battle is lost,” said Venables, “we’re probably not going to win the game.”