CLEMSON, S.C. — The book on Clemson football recently has come down to this: Love the offense. Loath the defense.
So what happened Saturday in the 14th-ranked Tigers 38-17 victory over Virginia Tech should be good for both units: The offense didnt have to play savior because the defense carried its weight. Picking off three passes one leading directly to a score the secondary gave the offense a boost it desperately needed.
The biggest play of the game was safety Jonathan Meeks 74-yard interception return, giving the Tigers a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter. Let Meeks describe:
Thats a dream. Lots of green grass, Meeks said. Coach Swinney could have scored on that one.
Head coach Dabo Swinney didnt mind being called a slow, old man, so long as it came in response to a game-changing play.
That pick-six was huge, Swinney said. You talk about momentum-turners? That got it done.
Clemson (6-1, 3-1 in the ACC) needed a momentum-turner because the offense was just plain flat in the first half, following an open date the previous Saturday. Quarterback Tajh Boyd was sacked five times, twice in Clemsons opening drive. By games end the Hokies actually out-gained the Tigers 406 yards to 295.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris sounded peeved after the game. Five possessions failed to achieve a first down and Saturdays sack total was half as many as the Tigers had given up over the first six games.
We had too many 3-and-outs. Entirely too many, Morris complained, adding of the sacks, Totally unacceptable. Embarrassing. Ill start heating the room up a little bit.
The common pattern at Clemson lately has been Morris getting huge praise and the defensive staff fielding criticism. Following last season Morris was courted by other programs notably Ohio State while defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was fired after the Tigers gave up 70 points in the Orange Bowl.
New defensive coordinator Brent Venables found Saturday to be a statement for his unit: We cant always expect to be bailed out by the offense. You cant always play shootouts.
This was the third Clemson victory over Virginia Tech in 13 months, each one by a margin of 20 or more points. This felt like a power shift, considering how the Hokies (4-4, 2-2 in the ACC) have dominated most every matchup in the conference.
Coach (Frank) Beamer is 27-6 in ACC road games, Swinney said. So I wasnt sleeping very good last night.
There were some promising signs on the offensive side by games end. All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins bounced back from a sluggish start to the season, with eight catches for 84 yards. And the Tigers scored touchdowns on three of their last five possessions.
But all three of those scores were set up by short fields: Each drive started within 52 yards of the end zone. That was the defenses doing.
Its crazy that 38 points is a bad day for the offense, said safety Xavier Brewer, who had an interception.
We had their backs today. Theyve had our backs all season.