Don't Write Off What First Shutout Since 2016 Means for Clemson Defense

Brad Senkiw

Clemson's defense holding The Citadel to 162 total yards on Saturday won't make many headlines. 

Neither will the No. 1 Tigers' ability to keep the Bulldogs from getting above 2.7 yards per carry in the second game of the 2020 season. Their 76 passing yards isn't a misnomer since their triple-option offense doesn't air it out much, but the 87 rushing yards to a team that specializes in the run is at least noticeable. 

Overall, though, few folks will react strongly to that kind of performance from a Brent Venables-led defense. After all, the Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been churning out top-10 stop units for much of the last decade. 

But the Tigers did accomplish something defenses when Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell were veterans didn't. Clemson pitched a shutout. 

“I thought our team came really ready to play," Venables said after a 49-0 win Saturday. "We’ve got a bunch of noobies, their first experience with the triple-option offense."

Before The Citadel, the last team to hang a fat goose egg on the scoreboard against the Tigers was Ohio State. You might remember that game fondly if you wear orange or have totally forgotten it if you prefer Scarlett. 

It was the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, and Wilkins was a sophomore. Lawrence was a freshman, and Ferrell had just five career sacks at that point. The Buckeyes entered the game as the slight favorite behind veteran QB J.T. Barrett. 

Receivers Curtis Samuel and Terry McLaurin played in that game before they were playing on Sundays, yet the vaunted Ohio State offense produced a grand total of zero points, just like The Citadel on Saturday.

It was an embarrassing performance from the Buckeyes as Clemson rolled to a 31-0 victory, but it's hard to believe they were the last. After all, the Tigers ranked fourth nationally in total defense in 2017, fifth in 2018 and sixth in 2019. 

A defense led by Isaiah Simmons, who redshirted in 2016 and was the eighth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, wasn't on a single Clemson squad that held a team scoreless. That's hard to believe.

So what does that mean that this unit kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard for four quarters? While Clemson has beaten its share of FCS foes and low-level Group of Five squads, the Tigers still went 46 games without a shutout. 

"Really proud," Clemson fifth-year senior linebacker James Skalski, who scored a defensive touchdown on a fumble recovery Saturday, said about blanking The Citadel. "We've definitely had some opportunities over the last four years to do so and we haven't. When you're a defensive guy, that's something you really want to do, get that goose egg. When you're playing a triple-option, it's hard, no matter who it is. It's hard to prepare. It's a whole different language of football."

Is this defense different? It's hard to be better than what Venables has produced, but maybe it truly is. Some of this is flukey. Clemson's given up some late scores with third teamers and walk-ons on the field before, but why didn't The Citadel capitalize on a late score?

Well, they tried, but a second-half field goal sailed left of the posts, and the Bulldogs couldn't get close again, even against a bench-clearing defense. Sure, The Citadel is playing just four games this fall and wanted to get its younger players some work, but maybe it says something about the depth of Clemson's defense.

The Tigers' backups weren't especially sharp last week at Wake Forest, which scored a late touchdown to total 13 points. This week was a much easier test, but the youth passed, something others didn't for the last three seasons. 

The biggest takeaway, though, is just how good this unit could be moving forward. 

"We are good to be so young," Skalski said. "The ceiling for this group is so high. I’m really excited to see how far we can go. That’s up to us at the end of the day."

Figuring out what that looks like is difficult. Everything is measured differently in this COVID-19 pandemic season, especially with an entire Power 5 league (Pac-12) sitting out and two more (SEC and Big Ten) yet to begin their seasons. Still, Clemson's defensive talent is undeniable. 

Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee are playing starter-like minutes and producing starter-like stats. Both of Murphy's tackles Saturday were for a loss while Bresee made a great move to knock down a pass attempt in the first half. That's what just two freshmen did. Defensive tackle DeMonte Capehart had a sack and two tackles for a loss in his debut. 

"It was good to see the young guys get in there and make plays," Skalski said. 

Jake Venables, a redshirt sophomore linebacker, led the team in tackles. Remember, two expected starting defensive ends - Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas - haven't even played this year. 

In fact, Skalski compared this group to the one he played behind that talented front corps of Wilkins and Ferrell. 

"We’ve got dudes up front," he said. "We’ve got some real dudes that can cover you up. It helps everyone. It’s very competitive at practice. That’s all you can ask for. It pushes you to be better." 

The secondary is where the most youth lies, and there is a ton of growing up, and some maturity needed by veteran Derion Kendrick, to do there. While The Citadel was never going to test their coverage skills, they still showed the ability to tackle well in space and come up and make plays near the line of scrimmage. 

Yes, it's still early, but if this group continues to keep the focus of getting better, and it appears coachable thus far, Venables has another stellar defense on his hands. It's crazy to think, but it could be more talented than any other he's had. They just don't have the experience yet. 

Check back in a month or so when the maturation process has taken place and they've learned from live-game mistakes. The sky is the limit. 

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