On Saturday, the biggest difference maker in the game were the two defenses. Many believed that whichever defense, both riddled with question marks, made more plays would emerge victorious. That theory proved to be correct as the Clemson Tigers got consistent pressure on Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray and got enough stops to give their offense opportunities on the other side of the ball despite Todd Gurley‘s 154 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
We’ve already graded the Tigers’ Week One offensive performance against Georgia. Today we will highlight just how well the defense performed in its season two debut under defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Defensive Line: A
Everyone knew that Clemson was returning experience along its defensive line, but against an experienced Georgia offensive line, many were unsure of just how much pressure the Tigers could get. That answer was given on Saturday, as Vic Beasley was a force on the edge, notching two sacks and pressuring Aaron Murray all night. Corey Crawford also came alive on the other side and even had a key red zone interception thanks to a well timed zone blitz. Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and Carlos Watkins gave the interior of the Bulldogs’ line all it could handle and made them fight every play. The pressure put on Murray made the difference in Clemson’s victory over the Bulldogs, and their performance should give this defense more confidence early on.
The linebackers had their share of ups and downs against a strong running back like Gurley, who had 154 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries. In fact, his first touch of the game went for a 75-yard touchdown. But despite Gurley’s field day, the Tigers neutralized speedster Keith Marshall, who scored a touchdown but only managed 43 rushing yards on 16 carries for a paltry 2.7 yards per carry. Linebackers Stephone Anthony and Spencer Shuey showed good chemistry together, and Shuey in particular seemed to always be around the ball or part of the play. Quandon Christian was solid at the SAM position, as all three saw the majority of the snaps on defense. The biggest part of the game was that they did not let Gurley or Marshall beat them on the ground.
The secondary still has work to do to continue improvement. The defensive backs were abused over the middle of the field, which was left open for most of the night, and tackling was a little bit of an issue for this group. At corner, the Tigers rotated between the likes of Bashaud Breeland, Garry Peters, and Darius Robinson. Martin Jenkins saw time early, but he exited the game early due to a shoulder injury. However, despite the missed tackles, there were huge positives. The biggest difference was that the secondary didn’t allow a single touchdown pass, which in itself is a big accomplishment when facing a quarterback like Aaron Murray. They also came through at key points in the game, breaking up key passes and showing flashes of improvement. However, letting Georgia march right down the field to to score their final touchdown late in the game with the chance to recover an onside kick still leaves the status of this group up for debate. While the status of the secondary is still up in the air, they did well enough to keep Bulldog receivers out of the end zone.
Special Teams: A+
If there was one other thing that made the difference in a Clemson victory, it was special teams. Punter Bradley Pinion put his strong leg on display on both punting and kickoff units, as he not only flipped field position to the point that Georgia had only four punt return yards, but he also kicked the ball into the end zone all six times, leaving the Bulldogs with zero kick return yards. This was an element on special teams the Tigers lacked last season. Pinion was an undervalued asset on special teams, and it could make the difference against teams in 2013 with dangerous return men. Taking advantage of the Bulldogs’ botched snap on their failed field goal attempt also proved to be the difference in the game.
The Tigers’ defense proved it can make plays against a good offense along the front seven and that Beasley looks to be the next best thing. Now, all eyes will be on how the secondary progresses throughout the season and whether improvement will be seen with the current group of Breeland, Peters, and Robinson.