Final thoughts, prediction: Clemson’s defense faces different challenge vs NC State

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Three weeks into the college football season, No. 9 Clemson is the only team in the country that has held its opponents without a touchdown.

The Tigers have only given up four field goals, with opposing offenses averaging seven points per game and having only eight red zone trips over 194 total plays.

At this time over the past three seasons, the Clemson defense averaged 13.3 (2018), 10.0 (2019) and 12.0 points (2020) given up per game. Last year, offenses averaged 326.8 yards a game against the Tigers’ defense — so far, they’ve been able to hold their foes to 266 yards an outing. It’s the lowest yardage totals since 2014 (260.8), which was only the second time in Clemson history where the program led the nation in defense. The first was in 1990 when the Tigers only allowed 217 yards per contest.

Of course it’s still early, but the statistical success so far is a testament to the experience, depth and talent the Tigers possess, especially considering the fact that they’ve had to move their starting lineup around in every game.

During the season opener, Ruke Orhorhoro had to start at defensive tackle in place of Tyler Davis, who was unavailable. He’ll have to replace Davis again this week and for the foreseeable future after Davis suffered a torn bicep against Georgia Tech. The timetable for Davis’s return is seven to eight weeks.

Nolan Turner, who made 11 starts in 2020, was out for the first two games with a hamstring tear, while Baylon Spector missed the ACC opener against the Yellow Jackets with a knee flareup. LaVonta Bentley, who had been taking first-team reps, started in his place and led the team in tackles with 13.

The next-man-up mentality couldn’t be more fitting for a group that has only given up the four field goals in its first three outings.

“They’ve got a lot of pride in their performance,” Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said of his defensive unit. “They’re not just satisfied with winning the game. They want to dominate.”

To his point, there’s always room for improvement. In fact, if you ask Swinney, defensive coordinator Brent Venables or any of the players, they’ll tell you the defense played its worst game against Georgia Tech last week, which came down to a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter. Sixth-year senior linebacker James Skalski made the right read on a familiar shovel pass, stopping tight end Dylan Denevey from going two yards into the end zone and allowing Clemson the 14-8 victory.

Up to that point, there were penalties at the wrong time and mental lapses that allowed Georgia Tech to stay in the game. A roughing-the-passer call on Orhorhoro allowed the Yellow Jackets 15 free yards during the fourth-quarter drive that ended with the goal-line stop.

“The effort, the physicality, it’s been really good but again, staying disciplined within the system to doing your job,” Swinney said. “We did a really poor job of leveraging the ball. We did not contain the ball very well at all. Quarterback scramble really kept them in the game. I mean, it’s really what kept them even alive. … You’re always satisfied and happy that you got the win, but you move on. How do we get better? That’s what we do every single week.”

The last time the defensive unit felt it had a poor showing was in a season-ending loss to Ohio State. Granted, the Tigers had all offseason to make adjustments, but they responded with the current touchdown-less streak. The turnaround now is much shorter.

“Our biggest thing was come out, be physical, be a tough, physical defense, be detailed and then Week 1, we showed that,” Turner said. “We’ve just been trying to build on that throughout the last couple weeks. Really just attacking those weaknesses that we have and addressing them was the biggest thing. It’s been nice to see that growth and development thus far in the season.”

This week, N.C. State offers a different challenge as the Tigers head to Carter-Finley Stadium (3:30 p.m., ESPN) for their first true road game of the season. It’s been two years since the two teams have played, when Clemson came out with the 55-10 victory.

“Really good football team that’s got a great defense, really, really good offense, terrific backs and really good quarterback,” Venables said. “Probably the most athletic offensive line that we’ve seen up to this point. A lot of experience coming back, so there’s a lot to be motivated about. We’re going to have to have a great week of practice, great game plan and we’re going to have to play really, really well to have a chance to win the game.”

— Prediction: Clemson 21, NC State 17 —

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