The Defense Rests: Venables says group needs a break


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Shaq Lawson gets to UNC quarterback Marquise Williams
Shaq Lawson gets to UNC quarterback Marquise Williams

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was frustrated, for sure, with his unit’s mistakes in Saturday’s ACC championship game.

But he also savored the 45-37 win and everything that goes along with it. That includes the chance to rest before the team’s national semifinal game in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma on Dec. 31.

“I don’t know if it’s off, but it’s going to help for sure,” Venables said. “I hope so, I think it will. We all need a little bit of time. That treadmill has been 15 and 15 for a long time. It’s exciting, though, what we have sitting in front of us and the opportunity. But we need a few days to really take a deep breath and heal up a little bit and get ready to go here down the stretch run.”

Clemson is the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff, followed by Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma. The Tigers beat the Sooners 40-6 last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Clemson earned its chance to be the No. 1 seed by finishing off the Tar Heels and a 13-0 season.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s been a heck of a season,” Venables said. “It kind of came out of nowhere, to be honest with you. But it has been a lot of fun. We’ve kind of seen it all this year. We’ve been in all types of situations, had to come from behind, had the lead. We’ve had the back and forth. We’ve had the tale of two halves as was the case again here at least for that fourth quarter.

“It’s been a lot of fun, seen a lot of guys grow up, and to see the excitement in the Clemson community and the Clemson family and throughout the university and to see these guys and their hard work pay off, it’s a special team. You’ve gotta have a lot of things go your way and a lot of things come together and have some luck. It’s a special group of guys, for sure.”

Still, there were problems for the Clemson defense, especially in the fourth quarter.

The Tigers surrendered 240 yards passing and 142 rushing and allowed the Tar Heels to score a late third-quarter touchdown and two fourth-quarter touchdowns to stay in the game.

“Jekyll and Hyde, I’m not sure who I’m pulling for, but I know I’m pulling for one of them and not the other,” Venables said. “We do some of the most bonehead things, but that’s a reflection of coaching, and we’ve got to do a better job. Right there at the end, most of the guys are playing to win and a couple of the guys are playing not to lose, and it shows. We’ve got to be better than that. That’s the most discouraging part, that we make it so hard on ourselves at the most inopportune times.

“For as well as we played for a good portion of that game, I know the ultimate goal is to win, but that was disappointing. It’s one thing if they take three or four minutes, and they’re making some really good, competitive plays, but I can’t stand non-competitive plays at all. We’ve got to get better there.”

The Tigers, however, made plenty of competitive plays through the game.

There was talk during the week that the defense would struggle against the high-power Tar Heels offense, which led the ACC in scoring entering the game. And there was talk that the defense was worn out after playing 10 straight weeks.

“The biggest thing was to watch them play and knew we needed to come ready to play,” Venables said of the Tar Heels “For a good part of (Saturday), we really were. I think (the defense was) very motivated but as much as anything for an opportunity to win an ACC championship. What was at stake was the biggest motivating factor.”

Containing North Carolina running back Elijah Hood and quarterback Marquise Williams was key to the Tigers’ defensive plan.

Hood managed just 65 yards on 14 rushes, while Williams did throw for 224 yards and rush for 81, but he completed just 11-of-33 passes, and he had pivotal turnovers – an interception and a fumble.

“We wanted to make him hold the ball. At times, it was really good up the middle,” Venables said of the pressure the Tigers put on Williams. “We missed some opportunities. He’s a great competitor, a great player, and they’ve got a good system. I thought it was important to keep them off balance. He’s very patient, he’s very well-coached, and he does a good job of stepping up in the pocket, so we wanted to disrupt the launch point up the middle. Golly, we make it so hard on ourselves, but really, we were disruptive enough to have an opportunity to win.”

Williams’ interception took place in the third quarter with the Tar Heels driving and Cordrea Tankersley making the pick in the red zone. Williams’ fumble occurred in the fourth quarter and led to a key field goal for Clemson.

Shaq Lawson made the play, hitting Williams, and Austin Bryant made the recovery.

“It was a huge play. We brought a man-free pressure and decided to bring a few guys, play to win, gotta remind myself of that one,” Venables said with a laugh. “Shaq makes a great play, beats his guy one-on-one. We got pressure up the middle. The quarterback holds the ball. We’re in good tight coverage, and it’s a huge play in the game. Obviously getting the ball back and taking more time off the clock, and we score a field goal on that one.

“That was a huge play in the game.”

It was one of the many huge plays Clemson made to win its first ACC title since 2011 and Venables’ first with the team.

“Obviously, we’ve got a good quality team with talented players but a group of guys who are hungy and humble, care for each other and care for this school,” Venables said. “They’re willing to sacrifice and lay their guts out there and do whatever it takes to win. We’re certainly not perfect, and we have our flaws and our warts, but when it’s all said and done, we’ve got character and showed a lot of heart.”

*Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.

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