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Venables, You Have a Problem: Clemson Defense Getting Shelled in Playoff Games

The trend of facing top-tier players and giving up points and yards won't go away for Clemson, so managing it better is the key to getting over the College Football Playoff hump.

Clemson has a problem. 

Despite the big-time talent, top-notch schemes and the best defensive coach in the business, the Tigers can't stop elite teams from scoring points and racking up yards when it matters most. 

Against Ohio State on Friday in the Sugar Bowl, Clemson's stop unit fell apart on the big stage, a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Tigers gave up 639 yards and 49 points. It's the third-most yards allowed in the history of Tiger football. 

The Buckeyes did it on the ground (254 yards) and through the air (385), and QB Justin Fields threw six touchdown passes. Ohio State found the end zone on five consecutive possessions in the first half and led by 21 points after the first 27 minutes of the game. 

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To both the trained and the untrained eye, Clemson was abysmal on defense. The Tigers got beat at the point of attack and in the secondary. 

"Defensively, we were really out of rhythm and (gave up) too many busted, big plays, big chunks, posts over the top, guys open, not stopping the run," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. "It put a lot of pressure on us."

The problem is, it's not the first time in the last 365 days that it's happened. In last January's national championship game against LSU in the same building as the Ohio State game, Clemson allowed 628 yards and 42 points to the SEC Tigers. That was one of the best offenses in college football history, but still. This is Venables we're talking about. 

A couple of weeks before that, Venables' unit saw Ohio State put up over 500 yards in a Fiesta Bowl that Clemson won. Still, add up the last three CFP games for the Tigers, and that's 1,783 total yards of offense and 114 points allowed. 

Ohio State and LSU combined for 848 passing yards and 11 touchdowns through the air against the Tigers. And this is a premier defense in college football. It's the same one that stopped Alabama in 2018, when some people thought that was the greatest offense ever. 

Until this year, Venables, who helped Clemson win the 2016 and 2018 national titles, has had a top-10 unit in total defense every season since 2014. However, of the four times he's seen an opponent go for over 600 yards from the Clemson sideline, two of those were LSU and Ohio State.

To fix a problem, you first have to identify it. First off, offenses these days are exceptionally talented. The level of coaching and schemes that players are so familiar with and thrive in is the theme in college football. Gone are the days of ground and pound. Nobody in the Power 5 runs a traditional triple option. 

Even LSU and Alabama of the formerly power-run SEC ditched the defensive-heavy, ball-control style for a faster, more aggressive scheme. The game has changed so much just in the last five or six years, much less since Venables came to Clemson in 2012. 

Teams are giving up bigger chunk-yard plays. In 2010, seven college football teams gave up 20 or more plays of 40-plus yards. In 2019, the last time there was a more even playing field when it came to the number of games played because of the pandemic, 17 teams allowed 20 or more plays to go 40 yards-plus. 

Is it inevitable in this era that big plays are just going to happen? Do you just chalk it up as fact if you're a defensive coach?

"To me, it's not OK. I don't know what trend is, but I don't think you'll find a defensive coordinator out there that's OK giving up a big play. Absolutely not," Venables said back in October. "But what's the cutoff? People say you need more than 15 yards for it to be a big play. Maybe, I don't know. But you start getting into those 35, 40-yard plus plays, those are backbreakers. You're not going to play great defense if that's who you are, doing that every single week."

In 12 games, Clemson gave up 17 plays of 40 yards or more, which ranked 116th nationally. It's the second-most of the Venables era and the most since allowing 23 in 2015, when the Tigers played 15 games. 

Clemson's struggles have so much to do with the opponent. After all, Venables isn't giving up these numbers to everybody. If he did, he'd be unemployed, not one of the most compensated coordinators in the country. 

However, there are areas of concern. Clemson got crushed in the trenches against the Buckeyes. It marked just the third time since 2016 the Tigers allowed 200 or more rushing yards to an opponent. Another came Nov. 7 on the road against Notre Dame, another CFP team. 

Clemson wasn't 100-percent healthy that night, and it lost linebacker James Skalski in the last two playoff games to targeting penalties. At this level, you can't make excuses, though. 

In Venables' first three seasons, eight opponents rushed for 200 yards against him. Since 2015, it's only happened six times. Stopping the run is his calling card, but if his defensive line is overwhelmed by a stronger, bigger group, it opens up the big plays down the field. 

Ohio State had five pass plays and two run plays of more than 30 yards. That is completely unacceptable and a recipe to get blown out. 

So what's the answer to the problem? It's not like Clemson, which has had back-to-back top-5 recruiting classes, can take it up a notch when it comes to prospects. Even with NFL talents like Isaiah Simmons and K'Von Wallace the Tigers got torched by LSU. 

Defensive lines certainly matter. Clemson's all-time great group, aka The Power Rangers, from 2018 simply don't come along every year. Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee will get better and be extremely effective in future seasons, which will help. 

The back end of the defense does look like it can get better, even though Swinney said it's the most talented group he's had. That didn't manifest in 2020, but it might down the road as those young players improve. 

One answer is getting better on offense. Clemson's had some of the best scoring attacks in school history over the last couple of years, but they haven't been especially sharp in the playoffs. 

Regardless, it's not about dominating elite offenses in the postseason. It's more about minimizing mistakes and not letting momentum get rolling against you. Those two things are fixable, but the trend of facing top-tier players and giving up points and yards won't go away. Managing it better is the key.