Clemson halfway there

Larry Williams, Senior Writer
Tiger Illustrated

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CLEMSON -- Amnesia can strike quickly for followers of college football.

So as much as Dabo Swinney tried to prepare everyone for the fact that Wake Forest's defense is really good, it was easy to forget it after 15 minutes Saturday.

Clemson had piled up 206 yards on 32 plays, the Tigers were up 14-0 and it all seemed so easy.

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Until it wasn't.

From that point forward, the offense struggled and those struggles were measured against the ease of the first three drives instead of that Wake defense Swinney was so wary of.

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So was it Clemson's offense, or Wake's defense?

Probably some of both. And definitely not one or the other, as popular as that mutually-exclusive thinking is nowadays.

The beauty of the situation? This bloodthirsty defense is dominant enough and rampaging enough and suffocating enough to create the luxury of being able to sort out some offensive issues without being remotely threatened.

It's also enough of a monster to prevent outright panic when the starting quarterback has to leave the game, as Kelly Bryant did with a sprained left ankle halfway through the third quarter.

"What I saw from our defense was wherever the ball was spotted, they were ready to play," Swinney said. "They created pushback, got stops. They just bowed up and got stops."

If before the season you sided with conventional wisdom in assuming Clemson's defense would carry the team as the offense found its way, at the halfway mark of the regular season you'd be right.

The Tigers improved to 6-0 with a 28-14 victory over the Demon Deacons in a game that felt too easy and then too hard.

Clemson was never threatened in improving to 4-0 in the ACC while winning for the 37th time in the last 39 games, not to mention winning for the 49th time in the last 50 games against unranked opponents.

The Tigers totaled 453 total yards, 25 first downs and ran for 190 yards against the same defense that shut down Florida State last week. Take away a sack for 18 yards and Clemson cracks the 200-yard rushing mark officially.

The offense endured a trying stretch after the first three drives. The next four possessions went lost fumble (Bryant), punt, punt, and an interception by Bryant on the first drive of the second half.

The sequence brought plenty of groans from fans who saw the offense sputter for three quarters against Boston College. In that game the offense came alive in the fourth quarter. In this one, it came alive in the first quarter before finding the going much tougher.

"We're still growing," Swinney said of his offense. "I don't think we're a finished, polished, fully mature offense by any stretch of the imagination. I think we're growing each week."

The Deacons' defensive front, particularly Duke Ejiofor, gave Clemson some fits and mucked up the pass protection. After going turnover-free in the smothering of Virginia Tech, Bryant increased his turnover total this season to five (4 interceptions, 1 fumble).

Wake Forest put up the two touchdowns, but the scores came in garbage time after Hunter Johnson found Cannon Smith for a 13-yard score to put Clemson up 28-0 with 11:48 left.

The Deacons totaled 336 yards, but 138 of that came on the last two drives. Quarterback Kendall Hinton, subbing for injured starter John Wolford, completed 14 of 30 passes and ran for 92 yards on 24 carries. Wake Forest punted seven times.

Bryant had some familiar pocket-presence issues but still completed 21 of 29 passes for 200 yards. Travis Etienne led the Tigers in rushing with 67 yards on 15 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal that made it 21-0 (Bryant's final play).

Johnson came in after Zerrick Cooper and it could be the other way around next time, because Johnson looked more poised and crisp.

As for Bryant, he was in a walking boot after the game and he nor Swinney seemed terribly concerned.

"It did not appear to be too serious, but you never know how those things are going to heal," Swinney said.

Before their final two touchdowns, the Deacons had the ball in Clemson territory five times and had a big fat zero to show for it. That included a drive that reached the Tigers' 16-yard line (missed field goal) and 17-yard-line (turnover on downs).

So as long as this defense is terrorizing opponents' backfields, some issues on offense that would ordinarily be a big deal don't seem as momentous.

At least, not now.

"That was a tough team to get ready for," Swinney said. "I knew those guys would play us tough, and they did."

Words that were forgotten in the first quarter rang true in the end.

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