Clemson fans, players and coaches have been waiting for this since the second the Discover Orange Bowl ended on Jan. 4 -- the kind of defensive performance that indicates progress, some sort of a sign that things really are getting better.
On a day in which Clemson’s usually unstoppable offense had to punt seven times, fumbled twice and turned it over once on an interception, the Tigers’ defense accounted for a score and held Virginia Tech to just seven second-half points in a 38-17 win.
While Virginia Tech fans are quick to criticize their stagnant offense, Clemson’s defense deserved credit for putting pressure on quarterback Logan Thomas and holding the Hokies to just 60 yards in the third quarter. The closer Clemson’s defense gets to the top of the statistical standings, the further it distances itself from last year’s defensive debacle in a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
“I think it’s a step forward,” first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It was better for a lot of different reasons. The win is the biggest. To see them have more consistent success than they’ve had and come up with some big turnovers and a pick-six and a fourth-down stop early to take away the momentum, there’s a lot that was definitely more positive than negative for the first time in a while.
“I don’t take it lightly, either, in regards to the work,” he said. “They deserve to have success because they have worked all year. You feel better about where you’re going.”
There’s still a lot of work to do in Death Valley -- Clemson is No. 62 in the country in scoring defense at 25.86 points per game -- but Saturday was proof that if Clemson’s offense is having an off day, the defense is capable of picking up the slack. Clemson had three interceptions and four total takeaways in the win. It was the most interceptions and takeaways by Clemson in a game since last season against North Carolina.
"They had a great performance,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “From the sidelines, I believe it was their best game of the season. We struggled with some missed tackles, but they did really well at getting turnovers, including that pick-six.
"They had some big stops in the second half. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, which caused some hesitancy on his part and forced him to throw off target."
Safety Jonathan Meeks had two interceptions, including one he ran back 74 yards for a touchdown, and senior safety Rashard Hall had a game-high 12 tackles. The linebackers also played well, with Jonathan Willard and Spencer Shuey racking up 10 and nine tackles, respectively.
Meeks became the first Clemson player to have two picks in a game since DeAndre McDaniel against Miami in 2009.
"We have been growing up as a defense as a whole,” Meeks said. “Those guys [the offense] had our back all season. We had their backs today. It is a team win. It is a quick turnaround to next Thursday, so we have to put this one behind us right now and turn it over to Wake Forest."
Their next task is getting Wake Forest to turn it over to the Clemson D.