A look back at what we learned from Clemson football’s 31-17 victory Saturday against Virginia Tech before the Tigers host Wake Forest:
Tough environment? No problem.
Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium was rocking Saturday night, but the crowd did not appear to bother Clemson. The Tigers calmly drove down the field for a field goal on their first drive and followed that with a touchdown drive to take an early 10-0 lead.
“That’s just a mentality. You’ve got to take the crowd out of it. You’ve got to jump on them fast and have a fast start,” Tigers running back Tavien Feaster said.
Clemson has won 12 consecutive road games with the last loss in 2014. The Tigers are 10-0 away from home over the past two seasons with three wins in neutral site games. All 10 games have been at night.
“We don’t make it about that stuff. That really shouldn’t have anything to do with how you play,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of road environments. “If you’re a good player, you’re a good player anywhere. If you’re a good team, you’re a good team anywhere. Those things really shouldn’t matter.”
Clemson’s defense looks better than last year
Clemson finished eighth in total defense in 2016, and this year’s group appears to be even better. The Tigers lost several key players off last year’s unit, including Ben Boulware, Carlos Watkins, Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, but through five games, there has been no drop off. Clemson has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, already facing three top 15 teams, and ranks No. 7 in total defense, allowing 250 yards per game.
“So far, they’ve done a great job. They’ve answered every test. They show up. They take pride in their preparation,” Swinney said. “We’ve got excellent leadership. We’ve got guys that care. Not just our starters, all these guys really care about getting the job done.”
Toughest tests are in the past
Clemson has seven games remaining, and the Tigers should be heavily favored in all of them. Clemson already has three wins against top 15 teams and does not have any top 15 teams remaining on its schedule. The toughest test appears to be at N.C. State in early November, but the Tigers have been dominant on the road and have a talent advantage at just about every position over the Wolfpack.
Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables is glad to have this opening month of football over with.
“If you look back on it, back in the summer as a coach you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. This is like murderers’ row.’ You’ve just got to take it one game at a time,” he said. “What you’re most proud of is how our guys have worked and how we’re developing and really kind of creating an identity as a football team.”
Kelly Bryant is a difference maker with his legs
Clemson’s quarterback leads the Tigers in rushing through five games with 362 yards and seven touchdowns. The junior has been great on designed runs and when improvising. Bryant had a long run of 24 yards against the Hokies, but perhaps the most impressive play he made went for a gain of 1. Early in the third quarter, the Tigers were leading 17-3 when Clemson called a shovel pass at the Virginia Tech 5. The Hokies had the play sniffed out, and Bryant was forced to scramble. He retreated back to the 22 before juking defenders and eventually gaining a yard. The Tigers went on to score a touchdown on the drive to grab control.
“He decided to run for 50 yards in a box, just unbelievable,” Swinney said. “He’s a strong kid, and he’s just got great athleticism. Just a great individual effort on his part. We were going, ‘Oh no, no, no, no. Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ It was a play that didn’t go well, and somehow or another, he made it manageable for us.”
When Clemson protects the football, it blows teams out
Perhaps the most incredible part of Clemson’s success over the past few years is that the Tigers have won 36 of 38 games while winning the turnover margin only 16 times. So far this season, the Tigers have lost the turnover margin twice, won it twice and were even in one game. The two times Clemson won the turnover margin it beat top 15 teams on the road by an average of 20 points.
“That’s the second time this year we’ve been on the road and won the turnover margin,” Swinney said. “That was one of the key things coming into it. If we could find a way to at least be even in the margin, I felt like we matched up really well.”