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Clemson's Defense Flexes Its Muscle as Reigning Champs Pass Early Test Against Auburn

It was a long day for Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham, who was sacked 11 times at the hands of Clemson's defense in Saturday's loss. For Clemson, this was just business as usual.

Auburn’s visit to Clemson on Saturday night was billed as a showcase between two unproven starting quarterbacks. It ended up being a defensive slugfest with far fewer dazzling throws than crunching hits. Clemson held off Auburn, 14–6, to clear the first big hurdle in its national championship defense and move to 2–0 in advance of a showdown with Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson and Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium next week.

A week after he made easy work of Mid-American Conference bottom feeder  Kent State in a 56–3 win, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant leveled up to face an Auburn defensive line that should grind most SEC opponents to dust this season even without Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Auburn really got after Bryant, but he remained poised in the face of heavy pressure, accounting for 240 total yards (181 passing on 19-of-29, 59 rushing on 19 carries) and three touchdowns.

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The game turned on one key sequence near the end of the first half, in which Bryant headed to the sideline with an apparent shoulder injury and was replaced by redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper. Bryant returned the next series to orchestrate a 12-play, 88-yard march capped by a three-yard touchdown run on second and goal. On the TD, Bryant deftly received the snap, pivoted to his left and darted up the middle to put Clemson up 7–6 heading into the half, but Bryant was just getting started.

He showed off his wheels early in the third quarter on a nifty 27-yard rushing score that left three Auburn defenders on the turf flailing helplessly at Bryant’s legs after he’d spun out of a tackle and begun his dash to the end zone.

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Clemson would have needed more from Bryant and its offense if it hadn’t done such a good job bottling up Auburn counterpart Jarrett Stidham. Clemson sacked Stidham 11 times, recorded 14 tackles for loss and generally made gaining positive yards by air or by land a more difficult task for the former five-star recruit than Auburn coaches ever thought it would be when they landed him on the transfer market last year. Stidham completed only 13 of his 24 passes for 79 yards as Auburn finished with only 114 total yards to Clemson's 283.

This performance needn’t raise too many alarms about the state of Auburn’s offense. Stidham was under siege most of the night, and turning to the run game for relief was a non-starter, even with battering ram Kamryn Pettway back from suspension. Few, if any, offenses—including the one piloted by Jackson—Clemson faces this season will be able to make their front seven flinch, and Auburn may not face a more rugged defense over the next three months. That includes the Alabama D that’s set to travel to The Plains for the Iron Bowl on Thanksgiving Weekend.

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Speaking of the Iron Bowl…It wouldn’t be surprising if Auburn plays its way back into College Football Playoff contention by that point. It has a formidable defensive line led by promising youngsters like Marlon Davidson and Jeff Holland; a dangerous crop of pass-catchers; one of the best running back corps in the country; and a quarterback with major upside. Auburn couldn’t dethrone the reigning national champions in their own house, but its charge on most weekends during SEC play will be far less demanding.

For Clemson, Saturday night wasn’t particularly revelatory. Under Dabo Swinney, Clemson wins big games on autopilot. Auburn’s trek to Death Valley was another one, and Clemson handled it in workmanlike fashion even though its breaking in a new starting quarterback who’s replacing the best quarterback in program history. Next week brings another big game with a different challenge altogether: Stopping Lamar. With a punishing defensive line and a QB who’s getting more comfortable by the week, Clemson’s ready.