CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford said he and his teammates on the defensive line wanted to send a message in last weekend’s 38-35 win over Georgia:
“We’re not a soft front,” he said. “I know last year we probably had a couple of games that made it look like that, but this year we’re taking it upon ourselves to let people know we’re not soft. We’re a physical front.”
And they looked like it in the season opener.
The Tigers sacked Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray four times, intercepted him once, forced three fumbles and recovered one, disrupted the passing game, and made plenty of athletic plays. After what was something of a slow start for both defenses -- with a halftime start of 21-21 the game quickly lived up to the billing of a shootout -- Clemson got a much-needed statement performance from its defensive line.
“Our guys up front won the game for us,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “At the end of the day, they were disruptive enough. They had a couple of long runs, it was really the second level -- those guys did a fabulous job of making the running backs stop and start all night. Even when Murray was not sacked, they were disruptive enough at some key times when he threw some errant balls. I just think those guys came out and played at a really high level. They took to the challenge well and responded, and to me that was the difference in the game.”
Clemson’s defense has been its biggest question mark since the Tigers were blown out 70-33 by West Virginia in the 2011 Orange Bowl. (Yes, it’s been that long.) As Clemson has improved, though, skeptics have continued to wonder if the program has an elite defense to match its record-setting offense. One of the biggest factors that has separated Florida State and Clemson, as the two tangle for the lead in the Atlantic Division, has been the superiority of Florida State’s defense, particularly up front.
With the Noles having new starters on their defensive line and Clemson’s performance on Saturday, might the gap be closing this year? The Tigers’ performance last weekend was hardly flawless -- Georgia racked up 545 yards of total offense, averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored five rushing touchdowns. Coach Dabo Swinney said there were still some communication issues and a few mental errors on the backside -- but it was a second-straight win against an SEC opponent in which the defense was a highlight.
“I thought our front played outstanding the whole game,” Swinney said. “I was really, really pleased with how our defensive line played. I thought outside of just a few critical mistakes, our backers played very well. We had a couple mistakes. On the big long touchdown we just overran it, and that was really -- even most of the big plays, none of them were really on our defensive line. I just thought they did an outstanding job, very consistent for four quarters, backers were solid.
“We had a few big plays and some things that we've got to fix, but it's a good start. Not anywhere near what we want to be, but a very good start for our defense.”
Vic Beasley led the team with two sacks, and Georgia was just 4-of-14 on third-down conversions.
“I felt like Georgia just came into the game thinking our D-line wasn’t a physical D-line, like we weren’t a line they played against all the time,” said Crawford, who had the lone interception of the game. “As the game went on, we just kept pounding and pounding them and they kept getting tired and we weren’t. We made a statement we’re not a soft D-line.”