Originally created 09/08/02

Tigers defense stifles strong Bulldog offense



CLEMSON, S.C. - Your defense flusters a highly regarded quarterback into three interceptions and becomes rock solid deep in its own territory.

To Clemson fans who long for the dominating days of the 1980s, this is something close to nirvana.

"I think we're getting our swagger back," said Tigers defensive tackle Nick Eason, whose team shut out Louisiana Tech in the second half of Saturday's 33-13 victory at Death Valley. "This is a defensive school. This is what Clemson is known for."

The Tigers (1-1) displayed the swagger of old for the second straight game, and Aaron Hunt kicked a career-high four field goals as Clemson pulled away after halftime before an estimated 71,000 fans.

Yusef Kelly, in for injured starter Bernard Loose Rambert, totaled 97 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

Tigers coach Tommy Bowden said his defense doesn't have any more desire than last year, when it finished among the worst in school history. He attributes the turnabout almost exclusively to the schemes of new coordinator John Lovett.

"We want to make a statement that we're back," senior safety Eric Meekins said. "We're finally playing defense like we know we could have last year. We just started recognizing our ability, and with coach Lovett here leading us, we're going to be all right."

As impressive as the defense played Aug. 31 at Georgia - Clemson limited the Bulldogs' potent offense to 203 total yards in a 31-28 loss - frazzling Louisiana Tech quarterback Luke McCown might be more remarkable.

The junior entered the game coming off a 448-yard, three touchdown effort in last week's come-from-behind win over Oklahoma State, and most people figured he had a chance of approaching that success against Clemson's secondary.

Saturday, the Tigers' defensive backs - their chief weakness during last season's 7-5 disappointment- buckled down when they had to. Using coverage that gave up the underneath routes but protected against the deep play, Clemson held McCown to 213 yards passing and no touchdowns on a 26-for-44 day.

That's not to say the Bulldogs didn't have their chances. They were inside Clemson's 10-yard line three times but mustered only one touchdown.

Clemson's biggest defensive stand came with seven minutes to play in the game, after Hunt's fourth field goal gave the Tigers a 26-13 lead.

The Bulldogs had second-and-3 at Clemson's 11-yard line when a 2-yard gain by tailback Joe Smith made it third-and-1 from the 9. A procedure penalty pushed Louisiana Tech back to the 14, then McCown threw incomplete to leave the Bulldogs (1-1) with fourth down. McCown threw toward D.J. Curry on a slant, but freshman Justin Miller stepped in for an interception - the first of the cornerback's career - to snuff out the threat.

Bulldogs coach Jack Bicknell praised Lovett for confusing McCown, but he said Clemson's talent makes the job a lot easier.

"I don't care what you say - it comes down to the players," Bicknell said. "And they have great players over there."

A three-and-out on Clemson's next possession gave Louisiana Tech the ball back, but McCown threw into the teeth of a zone blitz and the ball was intercepted by end Maurice Fountain, who rambled 43 yards to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Kelly.

"We go out with confidence every game," Fountain said. "We get upset if they get touchdowns. We're flying to the ball better, and we're covering better."

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.