CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson cornerbacks Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson are glad to finally be making contributions on the field.
They had interception returns for touchdowns in the first half as the third-ranked Tigers (2-0) turned a tight game into a 52-13 blowout over FCS opponent South Carolina State on Saturday.
Jenkins missed last season with a hernia injury while Robinson broke an ankle mid-season and missed the final six games. The two friends collaborated on a rap song they hoped would be a Clemson anthem, We Too Deep. They’d much rather make a difference stopping opponents and helping the Tigers win games.
“When people look at Clemson’s defense, they look at the secondary as a weak line,” Jenkins said. “And it’s been like that the past three years. We were talking and said, ‘Man, we need to just start changing the culture.’ ”
The Tigers took criticism in their opening week win over Georgia because the defense surrendered 545 yards and was gashed constantly by Georgia’s feature back, Todd Gurley, who had touchdown runs of 75 and 12 yards.
The pass defense wasn’t much better, allowing Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to throw for 323 yards.
Clemson was stingier against South Carolina State. The Tigers held the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team to 11 first downs and 241 yards on offense. Holding down an FCS team will hardly convince fans that Clemson’s defense has arrived, Jenkins understands. Still, he believes it’s a strong step.
Not everything went perfectly for the Tigers defense. South Carolina State connected on a pair of long touchdown throws to Tyler McDonald, the first for 63 yards and the other for 51 yards.
“Yeah, I think our positioning was really pretty good” overall, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Those two plays, we just got to clean up.”
While Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd ran for the Tigers’ first TD, second stringer Cole Stoudt threw for three touchdowns. Two of those went to reserve wideout Germone Hopper.
Stoudt finished 19 of 20 passing, the single all-time best showing percentage-wise for Clemson.
Tailback C.J. Davidson, way down the depth chart, led the Tigers with 63 yards on the ground.
Clemson’s turned on the offensive firepower the previous two seasons. But Venables, the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator, was called on after the Tigers were torched for a 70 points in losing the Orange Bowl to West Virginia two years ago. He said when he took the job things wouldn’t change overnight.
Jenkins said he’s challenged defensive players to work harder to fix what has been wrong on that side of the ball.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was happy Jenkins and Robinson made critical plays in the Tigers’ win against South Carolina State.
“Both Darius and Martin have fought through some adversity, so it was good to see them get rewarded,” Swinney said.
South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough said the interceptions and the scoring runs took some of the fight out of the Bulldogs.
“What I am disappointed in is that we turned the ball over and gave them some scores,” he said. “If we don’t give them scores, then it’s a little different kind of ball game. But they’re a top-five team and you better make sure you understand that.”
And that ranking can rise even higher, Jenkins said, if the defense continues to improve.
“We don’t try and do everything in one day and we don’t try and do everything in one game,” he said. “What you do mess up on, don’t make that mistake again and when you keep building on that, you get better and better as the season goes on. That’s really what we’re striving for.”