Tigers' D needs above-average showing

It was only a year ago that Clemson’s defense was No. 13 in the country, holding opponents to just 18.77 points per game.

“I certainly wish we would’ve had that,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “We probably could’ve won it all.”

The ACC championship and a trip to the Discover Orange Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize for a team that lost three of its final four regular-season games, and Swinney knew the defense would have some growing pains this year after having to replace some key players. Clemson enters Wednesday’s Orange Bowl against West Virginia with the nation’s No. 62 scoring defense, allowing 26.15 points per game. The Mountaineers are averaging 34.92 points per game.

While Clemson’s high-powered offense has gotten the bulk of the spotlight this year, the Tigers will need an above-average performance from their defense if they’re going to beat West Virginia. Clemson’s defense has been inconsistent this year, but it has also come up with enough game-changing plays to help the Tigers to their first Orange Bowl appearance in 30 years.

“I knew we were going to be a little bit of a work in progress over there, and we have been,” Swinney said. “But we’ve had some huge moments. You look at the stop we had against Florida State. The stop we had against Auburn. We’ve had some big, big plays defensively.”

Including against Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech. The Tigers set the tone early in the ACC title game, creating a turnover on the first play of the Hokies’ first possession to set up a short field and a 7-0 lead. Virginia Tech was 1-of-3 on fourth downs in the title game, and David Wilson was held to 32 yards on 11 carries in the 38-10 loss. During the regular season, Clemson held Virginia Tech to just 4-of-16 third-down conversions and kept the Hokies out of their own end zone for the first time since 1995.

Defensive end Andre Branch said the Tigers had “a couple of lapses” in the three losses, but the ACC championship game was the true indicator of what the defense is capable of.

“We know what we have on that side of the ball and we know if we play as a solid defense and everybody does their job, the results will show just like they did against Virginia Tech,” Branch said. “They have a very potent offense and they’re high-tilt. They’re quick, real fast, quick on the edges and high-speed. You can’t get used to that unless you practice against it, and our offense is very high-speed also. But they have great athletes on that side of the ball.”

West Virginia is No. 7 in the country in passing offense, No. 17 in total offense and No. 19 in scoring offense. Quarterback Geno Smith is ninth in the nation with 326.6 yards per game, and receiver Tavon Austin has 7.42 catches per game to rank 12th in the nation.

“We have to compete and defend on every pass play,” Swinney said. “They will throw it. We’ve got to disrupt their timing, we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback for us to have a chance to win some of those matchups. Because if you let him hold the ball, then it’s going to be hard to cover those guys. They’ve got a ton of ability, a lot of speed and athleticism.”

So does Clemson’s offense. This time, though, the defense could be the story.