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Clemson defense lives up to preseason billing

The Georgia numbers do not tell the whole story, but boy do they paint an ugly picture.

The Clemson defense allowed the Bulldogs to rush for 328 yards and five touchdowns. Todd Gurley nearly eclipsed 200 yards and two freshmen combined for 100 yards on 10 rushes.

“It's proven to be an aberration,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, “but a source of motivation.”

Since the season-opening loss, Clemson has lived up to its preseason billing as one of the country's best defenses. The Tigers rank second in total defense, less than a yard per game off the pace of national leader Wisconsin. Five times the Tigers have kept opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground, and No. 2 Florida State needed overtime to break out of the negatives in rushing.

The No. 21 Tigers (7-2, 6-1 ACC) never lost confidence in the defense after the first week, even as some began questioning whether the unit was overhyped in the preseason.

“It wasn't anything that we couldn't fix. We didn't get out-talented,” senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “There was nothing to second guess. We knew we could fix it, and we answered the question about how good our defense could be. We definitely delivered.”

Jarrett, Venables and the rest of the defense have delivered more than results; they're delivering punishing blows. Florida State was sacked five times and held to 317 yards of offense -- about 133 yards fewer than its average -- against Clemson. A week after North Carolina State scored 41 points against the Seminoles, the Tigers shut out the Wolfpack. Clemson limited Boston College's Tyler Murphy, who ranks third in the ACC with 1,006 rushing yards, to 55 yards.

Their stiffest challenge awaits the Tigers on Saturday in Atlanta, though. In a game in which the winner could have the inside track to the Orange Bowl, Clemson travels to No. 24 Georgia Tech, which is third nationally averaging 336 rushing yards per game.

Clemson allows only 91 rushing yards per game, so this contest could help solve the unstoppable force-immovable object paradox.

“We've got to play out of our minds to have a chance to win this game,” Venables said. “It's easily our biggest challenge all year and it's not even close.”

Adding to stress for Venables is Georgia Tech's first-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas. The redshirt sophomore gives the Yellow Jackets a passing threat it has not had in years, and Georgia Tech leads the ACC in passer rating.

Top priority when playing Georgia Tech, however, is always stopping the run. The Yellow Jackets are second nationally with 108 rushes of at least 10 yards, and Georgia continually gashed Clemson in the opener for long runs. Jarrett said Clemson learned from the Georgia loss how to rebound instantly within drives and games, though.

“They're going to get some big plays, but our job is to limit them and flip momentum,” Jarrett said. “We have to play with relentless effort and chase the ball sideline to sideline.”

If the Clemson defense does that, it could play in consecutive Orange Bowls. It is still strange to say the Tigers' defense is what carrying this team, one that is still ridiculed for allowing 70 points in the 2012 Orange Bowl.

“It's about time we're holding our own weight and help complement one another on both sides of the ball,” Venables said. “We're more of a complete team.”