Clemson tackles misperceptions

Clemson has had to fight a two-fisted assault on its reputation early on this season, thanks to common misperceptions its critics have hung on to like a favorite pair of worn shoes.

They may seem comfy and familiar, but at this point they no longer fit. It may indeed be time to toss those old knocks -- and old shoes -- to the curb.

The first, of course, is that Clemson has a habit of falling to weaker competition. The other is that Clemson can only win with offense.

We saw differently last week in Raleigh. Yes, No. 3 Clemson faltered against NC State last Thursday night. But the Tigers answered questions about their resiliency, growth and maturity. Plenty went wrong for a majority of the game. Where other Clemson teams may have lost, this one found a way to win, 26-14.

It is worth noting that just about every team on the road to a national championship plays an imperfect game. Alabama lost a game in both 2011 and 2012. Undefeated Auburn needed overtime to beat the Clemson in 2010, and nearly lost to Alabama at the end of the season. Alabama needed a blocked field goal against Tennessee in 2009 to keep its perfect season alive. You get the point.

Teams sometimes play ugly games. Sometimes it happens against overmatched opponents. Tennessee, for example, was 3-3 when it nearly upset Alabama. As it stands, Clemson has won 11 straight games to unranked opponents by double digits dating to 2011. Only Alabama has a longer streak, with 21 in a row. Its only losses in the last 16 games are to top 10 Florida State and South Carolina.

It is hard to argue with those facts when they are presented so plainly. I can say lesson learned, too.

But what stood out about that NC State game goes back to misperception No. 2. Clemson is not all about tons of points and offensive gimmicks. In fact, the Tigers are not yet producing at the same levels offensively as they have the last two years.

Where they have made strides this season is on defense. That group allowed Clemson to win the NC State game. Again, that is something that may not have been said about this team two years ago. Seeing a trend here?

Clemson has been extremely strong up front. Just look at a few stats to see just how strong:

  • The Tigers have 12 sacks in three games, the most over the first three games of the season since 1999 when Tommy Bowden’s team also had 12. They are tied for fourth in the nation, averaging four sacks per game.

  • Vic Beasley leads the ACC with five sacks, second in the nation. He had three against NC State, including a critical forced fumble that changed momentum for the Tigers. In all, Clemson had five sacks, 10 tackles for loss, an interception, and forced fumble against the Wolfpack.

  • The numbers against Georgia are similar. Clemson had four sacks, one interception and forced three fumbles, recovering one. Without that type of defensive effort, Clemson may have very well lost that game, too.

Depth has been a huge reason for the success. Clemson is solid at every position along the line, and has gotten major contributions from freshman Shaq Lawson, who had his first career sack and three tackles for loss last week. He is the first true freshman defensive lineman to record three tackles for loss in a game since Da'Quan Bowers in 2008.

Beasley says Clemson has more depth on the line than at any point in his Clemson career. He also knows how good the line can be throughout the course of the season.

“We’ve gotta make plays. We've gotta be the strength of the defense,” Beasley said. “That's what gets us motivated and wanting to make plays out there.”

The linebackers have also been stronger than a year ago, with Spencer Shuey playing outside and Stephone Anthony in the middle forming a pretty terrific duo. Both have been named ACC Linebacker of the Week this year. Anthony won his honor this week, after racking up 16 tackles against NC State. Shuey recovered the critical fumble Beasley forced in the game and was selected the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd said after the game that was "probably the best defensive performance that I’ve seen here in a while."

Boyd would know. Now, if Clemson continues to pair a strong defense with its already strong offense, perhaps all the misconceptions will crumble once and for all.