CLEMSON, S.C. — Ben Boulware recalls two things specifically about his reaction to losing the national championship game a year ago: crying and being a jerk to anyone who wanted to talk to him.
The tears flowed and the walls were thrown up—“People wanting to do interviews, and I was a total A-hole,” the senior linebacker says now—not simply because Clemson fell short against Alabama last January. It was how Clemson fell short. The offense scored 40 points, but the defense surrendered 45. The weight of failure, of Boulware and his defense flubbing the most important opportunity of their football lives, was overwhelming.
“We felt like crap,” Boulware says. “I don’t want to feel that again.”
Clemson is happy to face Alabama in another national championship game Monday, but at least as its defense is concerned, this is not some testosterone-driven, We Want Bama chest thumping exercise. It merely represents the most direct path to redemption. The Tigers have deployed a top 10 defense now for three years running—this year’s unit finished the regular season ranked ninth nationally in total defense (313.9 yards allowed per game)—but it went missing for one very important night in Glendale, Ariz., last winter. The Crimson Tide rolled up 473 yards in the game and scored 24 points in the fourth quarter alone, and there evidently wasn’t much the opposition could do about it.
In theory it will not be difficult for Clemson’s defense to do better. Going by its elevated standards, it couldn’t do much worse. “We let up a lot of big plays, a lot of uncontested plays, too,” defensive end Christian Wilkins says. “It’s a bad feeling you get when you feel like you don’t pull your weight. The offense did what they had to do. Obviously we didn’t do our jobs. New year. New team. We’re just going to have to focus on getting the game plan down.”
There are complicating factors. Alabama technically installed a new offensive coordinator in the week before the championship, though it seems counterintuitive that Steve Sarkisian would stray too far from what his good friend Lane Kiffin has established in 2016, especially on such short notice. Maybe more relevant is freshman Jalen Hurts starting at quarterback for the Crimson Tide and offering a dual-threat that Clemson didn’t have to deal with facing Jake Coker in last year’s title game.
There are also arguments to be made that Clemson doesn’t have to change much of anything at all defensively, besides its level of efficiency. Take, for example, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard amassing 205 yards receiving in the championship game of 2016. To hear Clemson tell it, the plan on three of Howard’s biggest gains was just fine. So there’s really no reason to change much, except the execution and the outcome. “We turned him loose last year,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “First one, we turned him loose, don’t cover him. So that’s not a matchup problem. We just don’t cover him. We bust. Then [Coker] throws a wheel route and we’re in three-deep, and we settle thinking he’s going to throw somewhere else. So, again, we don’t cover him on another one. And then [Coker] throws it in the flat behind the line of scrimmage, and we feint and don’t make the tackle and there [Howard] goes. Those are the three plays in particular that were game-changers that I remember.”
Likewise the Tigers insist altering the game plan just to befuddle Hurts might be counterproductive. “You got some juniors that haven’t started 14 games in their career,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney says. “He ain’t a freshman anymore.” No, it’s better instead to reference the Fiesta Bowl shellacking of Ohio State and how the defense didn’t need many gimmicks or twists to register a shutout against an offense led by a veteran dual-threat quarterback in J.T. Barrett.
“He’s played at the LSUs, he played against Florida in the SEC championship, beat Washington in the playoff game,” Boulware says of Hurts. “So I don’t think anything’s going to overwhelm him. We realize that. We’re going to stick to our roots.”
Clemson has harped on honing its consistency all season; it surrendered 71 plays of 20-plus yards last season and 54 such plays this year, per CFBstats.com, a jump from 102nd nationally to 31st nationally. The Tigers’ scoring defense (18.4 points per game) ranked 12th in the country entering the playoff and, clearly, only improved from there after the Fiesta Bowl whitewash.
Should that improved reliability follow to the championship game, the Tigers likely will not get gashed the way they did a year ago. That may not correlate to a win. There may still be tears and a decided lack of interest in postgame media duties. But the wounds won’t be self-inflicted.
“If you put up 40 points a game, you’re not supposed to lose,” Boulware says. “For us to lose the game on defense, it sucked. Obviously we want to change that around.”