COLUMBIA — After watching Clemson’s offense make a major leap forward last year, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney hopes it’s the defense’s turn to improve this fall.
He saw plenty of hopeful signs Saturday night in No. 14 Clemson’s 26-19 victory over Auburn at the Georgia Dome.
There were plenty of mistakes Swinney and first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables will highlight on tape before moving forward. But they also won’t be able to ignore how a group that gave up 28 points or more in seven of its’ final eight games last year forced Auburn to settle for field goals over touchdowns.
“We kind of settled in and really played clean in the fourth quarter,” Swinney said Sunday. “That was good to see.”
Especially after some of the showings Clemson’s defense closed with a year ago. The unit was torched for 37 and 34 points in losses to North Carolina State and South Carolina. The capper was the disastrous 70-33 defeat to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl that left some at Clemson feeling less like Atlantic Coast Conference champions and more like beaten down dogs.
Enter Venables, the longtime Oklahoma defensive coordinator brought on to do what offensive leader Chad Morris did for Clemson’s offense a year ago.
The Tigers came last fall as a team that struggled to score, producing two touchdowns or less in four of its final regular season games in 2010. Under Morris’ super-charged schemes last season, Clemson set school records with 6,171 yards and 470 points.
It’s only a one-game sample size, but indicators are already pointing up for Venables and the defense. Clemson ran past Auburn in 2011 for a 38-24 win. This time, Clemson held the Tigers to fewer yards (374 to 435) and points than a year ago.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement. We’ve got to be a lot more consistent,” Venables said after the game. “We can’t give up big plays and leave guys uncovered. But we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, either.”
Swinney said last week called Venables “a caged animal” who was ready to see his guys in live action. Venables didn’t like much of what he saw early on.
Auburn receiver Emory Blake was all alone behind the secondary for a far-too-easy 54-yard TD catch. Auburn receivers broke free a couple of other times, too.
Venables, though, said his players kept up their aggressive approach and became sounder on technique as the game went on. That was particularly true at the start of the fourth quarter with the game tied at 16 when Auburn’s Darren Bates picked off quarterback Tajh Boyd to set his team up on the Clemson 35.
Auburn got inside Clemson’s 10 before a holding penalty and two incomplete passes led to a field goal <0x2014> and Auburn’s final points of the game.
Clemson answered with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead for good, 23-19. Auburn managed one first down its next series and quickly gave the ball back
Auburn had just 1:24 left to try for a tying touchdown, but quarterback Kiehl Frazier fumbled behind the line of scrimmage then was sacked two plays later by defensive lineman Vic Beasley.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik chalked up the loss to bad playing by his team when it mattered most. The Tigers got to Clemson’s 30 or better four times in the game and never got more than a field goal.
“It really came down to execution in the red zone offensively,” Chizik said “In big games we’ve got to be able to get into the end zone and get seven points, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Clemson’s Swinney isn’t going over the top about his team’s defensive play <0x2014> not yet anyway.
“I’m encouraged,” he said. “We made some good adjustments, we didn’t lose our poise and we rallied and got stops.”
Venables even got to let off some steam after the game, Swinney said, and feel good about the months of preparation since taking over for Kevin Steele last January. “I know it was a big, big moment and I’m proud of” Venables, Swinney said. “But we’re far from satisfied. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”