LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — If Clemson’s defense is a work in progress, the growing pains aren’t showing in the box score or the scoreboard.
The No. 4 Tigers appear to be as stingy as last year’s national championship team.
Clemson (7-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) hasn’t yielded more than 294 yards since the opener against Georgia Tech or 20 points since edging North Carolina last month. Saturday’s 45-10 rout of Louisville was the Tigers’ latest dominant performance, as they held the Cardinals to just 263 yards, a field goal and a late touchdown.
Asked about Clemson’s yardage allowance, junior defensive end Justin Foster said: “We try not to think about that. At the end of the day we just try to dominate them to best of our ability.”
The Tigers’ success to that end is impressive considering they replaced seven regulars from that title team.
Clemson’s most obvious changes have been up front as it sought to fill voids left by the departures of Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, both NFL first-round draft selections. Senior tackle Nyles Pinckney is the depth chart’s only defensive line starter without an “or” listed next to his position, with redshirt underclassmen saturating the other three spots.
That unit has steadily progressed, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney credits coordinator Brent Venables and his staff for recruiting and developing prospects who are contributing. But Swinney’s highest praise is for the back seven for setting the tone in shutting down opponents.
“We’ve recruited well, and guys stepped up,” Swinney said after the Louisville victory. “But everything starts with our back seven. They’ve been tremendous and very consistent all year.”
Clemson ranks fifth in the FBS in total defense at 256 yards allowed per game and eighth in scoring defense at just 12 points per contest. The scoring average is a point lower than the 13.1 that led the nation last season.
Even with a 21-20 escape at UNC that has resulted in the Tigers’ steady drop from No. 1 in the rankings at the start of the season, they’ve remained consistent in limiting opponents’ yardage and points. Florida State and Louisville combined for just 516 yards and 24 points the past two weeks.
The Tigers forced three turnovers Saturday, with two leading to 10 points. Clemson also recorded six sacks, with two each by Foster and junior linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who is tied for 20th nationally with six. Clemson is tied for fourth nationally at four sacks per game.
Swinney was pleased most by how Clemson stifled a Cardinals’ offense that entered the game having registered 103 points and 1,184 yards the previous two weeks to just 107 yards passing and a season low in scoring. The Cardinals didn’t reach the end zone until Javian Hawkins’ 3-yard touchdown run with 5:10 remaining.
“We had turnovers, gave our offense the ball back,” Clemson junior cornerback A.J. Terrell said. “So, I feel like we did good.”
The performance wasn’t perfect, but the Tigers took heart in locking down another opponent and giving the offense frequent opportunities. The names might be different and a little younger, but the results are looking familiar.
AP freelance writer Steve Bittenbender contributed to this report.