Clemson coach Dabo Swinney joked this week that he still wakes up seeing images of Georgia’s Todd Gurley sprinting down the sideline on a 75-yard touchdown run early in last year’s matchup between the Tigers and Bulldogs. It’s a tough image to forget.
Yes, Swinney’s team escaped with a 38-35 win, but Gurley and the Georgia ground game looked dominant. Gurley carried just 12 times but racked up 154 yards and two scores. Overall, the Bulldogs ran for 222 yards in the game and scored five times on the ground. That vaunted Clemson defensive front had few answers.
Now, as the Tigers get set for their return trip to Athens, Georgia, that image of Gurley bursting through the line of scrimmage and outrunning an overwhelmed secondary to the end zone remains front and center.
"It’s like tackling a tree trunk," said Clemson safety Robert Smith.
Finding a way to corral that tree trunk will be Clemson’s top defensive priority Saturday, and it will need to be a team effort.
The strength of Clemson’s defense is its front seven, particularly along the line, and that showed, even during Gurley’s stellar performance a year ago.
Here is a breakdown of Georgia’s rushing performance in last year’s game:
When the Tigers stacked the box and Georgia kept runs between the tackles, a few big plays developed but the Bulldogs’ overall success rate was way down. When Gurley and his cohorts bounced runs outside -- as he did on that 75-yard touchdown sprint -- things got ugly.
The interior of Clemson’s defense remains strong with Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and Stephone Anthony up the middle, but personnel changes in the secondary and a one-game suspension for defensive end Corey Crawford raise questions about the Tigers’ ability to seal the edges.
That has put an emphasis on fundamentals, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
"We didn’t tackle great [last year], gave up too many explosive plays," Venables said. "I know our guys can hold up physically, but your secondary is going to have to tackle well in run support."
Of course, that is easier said than done against a runner like Gurley, whose combination of speed and power makes him tough to catch, let alone bring down.
"Just his combination of size, strength and speed," Jarrett said, "it’s second to none."
Venables likely has a few tricks up his sleeve for this year’s matchup. When Vic Beasley was pressed this week on how much he might work as a stand-up rusher or outside linebacker, he simply grinned.
The line has gotten stronger, too. Clemson’s front seven will feature six senior starters. It’s a unit that led the nation in tackles for loss a year ago.
The other advantage for Clemson this time around is that the Tigers know what’s coming. That can be a double-edged sword, Smith said, but his defense remains confident.
"You can’t let what he did last year affect you this year, but you know what he can do," Smith said. "He’s a tremendous running back. We saw up close and personal. We don’t forget. But we also can’t let that hinder what we’re going to do this season."