Clemson linebacker Corico Hawkins was in coverage last Saturday and couldn’t see the fourth-down hit teammate Rennie Moore laid on FSU quarterback Clint Trickett to end the Seminoles’ hopes at a comeback.
He didn’t have to, either.
“All I heard was a roar,” Hawkins said. “I turned around and Rennie was celebrating. It was amazing. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”
For all of the attention Clemson’s offense has been receiving lately, it was the Tigers’ defense that got the last word on Saturday in a 35-30 upset win over the Seminoles.
“It was great being able to be on the field when the game was on the line and be able to stop them, that’s it, no more, as opposed to standing on the sideline, watching for the offense to make a play,” Hawkins said. “It’s always good to end the game on defense.”
It wasn’t until last Saturday that Clemson’s defense started to turn the corner, play more fundamentally sound, and start to close the gap a bit with its high-flying offense. Part of the early struggles can be attributed to the high number of substitutions and younger players who saw snaps in the first two games of the season, but more was expected from a defense that typically reloads. Clemson’s defense has put up pedestrian numbers this season, but against Florida State, the Tigers proved they are capable of more heading into Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech.
“I thought we made a lot of progress,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “We didn't have any critical errors, missed assignments in that game. We did a much better job with being in our gaps. But the biggest improvement is we tackled better. We were really poor the first few games, so it was good to see us tackle better. We had a couple of really key stops with some one-on-one tackles. That was good to see. We did a better job in coverage. We had a couple of busts, but we turned a couple of guys loose. We still gave up three or four big plays, which is the biggest area of concern. Where their guy made a play on our guy, and we've got to win more of those match-ups.
“We're not even close to what we want to be defensively,” he said, “but we are making progress, and it's still early in the season, and they found a way to make some key plays and we've got to continue to do that.”
Clemson’s defense still has a long way to go. The Tigers are No. 90 in the country in total defense and No. 66 in scoring defense, allowing 25 points per game. Against FSU, though, Clemson held the Seminoles to just 29 rushing yards and 3-of-10 third-down conversions. It was the fewest rushing yards that Florida State has had against Clemson since 2003, when the Tigers held the Seminoles to just 11 yards rushing. FSU was only in the red zone twice.
Still, Clemson continues to allow too many big plays for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s liking.
Opposing offenses collectively have 19 plays of 20 yards or more and six have gone for touchdowns in four games this year. Last year, Clemson allowed a total of 48 plays of 20 yards or more and only eight went for touchdowns.
“Our standard is excellence,” Steele said. “We’re not an excellent defense yet, but I don’t know that we ever have been and it’s sure hard to get there. But we are improving. It’s just about doing our job and being effective. We’ve made improvement there, but we’ve got a long way to go. The test there Saturday, we’d like to have a little bit more time to get some of those things ironed out before you have to face a team like Virginia Tech, but they’re on the schedule this week, so we better grow up fast.”