CLEMSON --- Charles Bennett and the Clemson defense have been in this position before. Last year, after being called out by head coach Tommy Bowden to force more turnovers, they responded with a breakout game against N.C. State.
Before that, the Tigers had forced just six turnovers in seven games and ranked last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in that category. When the October afternoon was done, the Clemson defense intercepted N.C. State quarterback Jay Davis five times and forced him to fumble one more in a 26-20 victory.
“There wasn’t anything we did different. We were just getting to the ball and just making those plays,” said Bennett.
One of those plays and perhaps the biggest was an interception at the goal line by Mr. Bennett on the game’s last play. Facing a fourth down-and-10 at the Clemson 11, Davis threw hurriedly across the middle where Bennett was there to tip the pass to himself, sealing the Clemson victory.
“We were in a zone blitz and it required the defensive end to drop back into coverage,” the Camden native said. “I just sat back in the middle of the field and the ball just came my direction and I just tipped it to myself.”
But it is plays like Bennett’s interception that appear to be missing again this year. Clemson ranks next to last in the ACC in forced turnovers with eight and has just 12 sacks for a unit that is allowing 357.8 yards a game.
“There isn’t too much of a difference to where the plays we made last year, we can’t make this year,” Bennett said. “It’s a different style of defense, but we are still in position to make plays, big plays.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has a theory; he thinks everyone is waiting for someone else to make a play. Bennett agrees and disagrees with his coach.
“Everybody wants to make that big play,” said the senior. “I don’t think we are just sitting here waiting for someone else to do it. Everybody is thinking ‘hey, I want to make this big play.’ But we just haven’t made that big play.”
This is why maybe it’s a good time for Clemson to be playing N.C. State again. The two ACC rivals will square off tonight at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., for 7:30 p.m. game on ESPN.
Like a year ago, the Wolfpack are turnover prone. State has 11 turnovers in just four games which ranks near the bottom of the ACC.
“Everyone is always talking about step up, make a big play, be a leader, do this and do that, but I can’t pinpoint when it will happen,” said Bennett. “But it will come, I think.”
Though N.C. State has made some mistakes on offense, both Bowden and Koenning pointed out the Wolfpack have improved when it comes to self-destructing and they’re telling their players not to depend on those mistakes happening, but instead try and force those mistakes.
Bowden said he likens Davis’ improvement at quarterback with that of Charlie Whitehurst in the area of interceptions thrown. So far, the senior has thrown just five picks in 120 pass attempts.
“When a young man experiences some ups and downs in a particular year, they’ve got a little bit of character to them,” Bowden said. “It gives them some toughness. They usually become better quarterbacks because of it.
“I think that’s the case with him and the case with Charlie.”
Bennett said if the Tigers give Davis time, he will make them pay for it. Davis currently leads the ACC in passing yards per game with a 258-yard average.
“If you give the quarterback time to make big plays, he will make them,” said Bennett.
But no matter what N.C. State tries to do offensively tonight, it ultimately will come down to the Tiger defense and how well they play.
“It is all about who is hot that particular night,” Bennett said. “We have been hot at times both offensively and defensively. It is going to come down to who is ready to play and who is ready to have that edge.
“If we come and play as hard as we can and not have any missed assignments, then we will be alright.”
And like last year, Bennett plans to be there when it comes time for him to make that big play or big interception.
“I would love that,” he said smiling. “We will see.”
Will Vandervort is the Sports Editor for the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger.