Getting Defensive: ACC schools turn up the defense
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hears the talk of improved defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference - and wonders why it took so long to notice.
Swinney's team ended last year as the country's top-ranked defense, yielding 260 yards per game. This fall, several ACC teams are hanging their hats on stout defenses.
Boston College leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense at 140 yards per game. North Carolina State is third and Duke is fourth. Pittsburgh, at seventh, gives the ACC four teams in the top 10. In all, there are 10 league teams among the top 50 in defense, the most of any of the Power Five leagues.
''Yeah, people are talking about it more this year, but I think it's been going on for a while,'' Swinney said in a phone interview from Clemson. ''Teams understand that if you want to win big, you've got to stop people.''
The fifth-ranked Tigers have done a lot of that in recent seasons.
Their defense has steadily improved in the four seasons under coordinator Brent Venables. After finishing 63rd nationally in Venables' first season in 2012, Clemson was 25th a year later and on top of the FBS last fall. The Tigers, despite losing first-round NFL picks in defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony, are 13th this year and chasing another top finish.
''We've got a lot of pride in what we did last year,'' Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd said. ''We don't want to give that up.''
Still, it will be hard to overtake the Eagles, who play at Death Valley on Saturday night. They haven't given up more than 14 points in any game this year. Boston College coach Steve Addazio said he arrived at the program three seasons ago with a plan to excel defensively.
''That is our philosophy that I brought in here. Put your best players on defense. Play great defense,'' Addazio said. ''It all starts there and I think we've worked and built toward that and hopefully we'll be able to hang onto that. Not just now, but in the future.''
Things are certainly working now. The Eagles lead the country in pass defense (98.7 yards per game) and rushing defense (41.7 yards per game). They're tops in fewest first downs allowed (56).
Linebacker Harold Landry is among NCAA leaders with 9 1-2 tackles for loss this season.
Eagles linebacker Steven Daniels said no one player stands out on defense.
''All of us, we work together and we are doing a pretty good job at it right now,'' he said. ''We just have to continue.''
''They're putting up unbelievable numbers,'' he said.
Syracuse defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said ACC defenses have been forced to adjust in recent years to the increased pace of offenses spreading across college football.
''You're obviously recruiting for speed,'' he said. ''And I think the ACC is responding to the speed by recruiting for speed (on defense).''
The improvement isn't only at the top of the league.
North Carolina was 117th defensively a year ago, allowing nearly 500 yards and 40 points a game- it gave up an embarrassing 789 yards and 70 points in a loss to East Carolina. The Tar Heels hired former Auburn national championship coach Gene Chizik to revamp its defense and things are trending the right way.
North Carolina ranks eighth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 25th nationally in scoring defense - along with their vast improvement in total defense.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said Chizik has brought a solid base that players can improve at week to week.
''That's all you need for a season - to know the base and have your base. Then you tweak things as you go according to what an offense tries to do against you,'' he said.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is wary about putting too much stock into these stats halfway through the season. The combination of ACC teams losing offensive power players like Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Miami running back Duke Johnson and Louisville receiver DeVante Parker and an experienced group of returning defenders skew the numbers in favor of defense.
''Until the season's over,'' he said, ''you don't know how that shakes out.''
Clemson's Swinney doesn't see the defensive improvement ending.
''We're setting the standard,'' Swinney said, ''and we expect that to continue.''
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jimmy Golen in Boston; John Kekis in Syracuse, New York; and George Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.