D. C. Moody
CLEMSON — The 2014 Orange Bowl marks the fifth trip to Miami for the Clemson Tigers football program and despite a 2-2 record, this year could be about the past instead of the future.
The 2012 edition of the BCS bowl game saw West Virginia destroy an already much maligned Clemson defense with a record setting performance in a 70-33 win, leaving head coach Dabo Swinney and the Tiger faithful with doubts and shaking heads.
Enter new defensive coordinator Brent Venables as Swinney’s answer to his team’s defensive woes. Since Venables’ addition to the Tiger staff the improvement has been obvious as younger players have matured and veterans have bought into the coordinator’s system and philosophy.
Two short years later the Tigers have an opportunity to prove themselves as a defensive football team.
“Florida State, Baylor and Clemson are the only three teams to finish in the top 25 in total offense, total defense, scoring offense, and scoring defense,” Swinney said. “That’s a great accomplishment based on where we were last year or even the year before.”
Even with these impressive statistics Swinney still isn’t satisfied as the defense has yet to achieve at the level he feels it is capable.
“These guys grew up a lot last year,” Swinney said. “They did a lot of growing up, especially in the second half of the season. But, as a program and where we want to be, where we set our expectation level, we just aren’t there yet. Our goal is to be a top 10 defense every year.”
Only two years removed from the defensive meltdown against West Virginia there are members of the 2013 Tigers who were part of that defense and remember what that performance was like and its lingering effects.
Junior safety Robert Smith was on the field that night in Miami and his outlook seems to be the same across the board where that particular bowl performance is concerned.
“My mindset is like this, the past is the past,” Smith said. “We work on the future and I think that’s what’s kept us successful this year. Since that game it’s all been about a next play mindset, our next series or next game mindset. We can’t do anything about what’s behind us.”
For the Tigers’ defense Ohio State’s biggest threat will be quarterback Braxton Miller who passed for 1,860 yards but more impressively rushed for 1,033, averaging almost 7 yards per carry and accounting for 32 total touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
“I don’t think we’ve faced one like this guy, he’s a different kind of animal,” Swinney said when asked about Miller’s talent level. “He has great instincts when he has the ball in his hand. There are a lot of guys out there who are quarterbacks that run with the ball, but this guy, he’s a legitimate runner.”
And what does the Clemson defense need to look for when the Buckeyes have the ball and Miller is taking the snaps?
“He does a great job of changing directions, he’s fast and runs away from people,” said Swinney. “He’s got excellent vision, he turns broken plays into positive plays. He buys time and finds guys down the field making some pretty big plays on a consistent basis.”
The poor defensive performance versus West Virginia in 2012 has been a long lived hurdle for the Clemson defense and program in general, always looming just outside the high expectations.
For Smith and his teammates, there’s no question to be answered merely a game to be played.
“At the beginning of the year a lot of people had a lot of question marks about this defense,” Smith said. “We’ve answered those question marks this year and got one more game to put it all to rest.”