CLEMSON — The Clemson defense returned to dominant form Saturday night against Georgia Tech, holding the Yellow Jackets to only 230 total yards of offense (32 passing and 198 rushing) and allowing only 10 points.
The question this week becomes: Can the Tigers continue their level of play as they travel to Raleigh to take on a dangerous N.C. State Wolfpack team that has a division championship in its sights?
“They (N.C. State) whooped us last year,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I think they averaged four yards a carry and when they had to run it late, they did it and possessed the ball and I think that most of those guys are all back.”
The one player Venables knows for a fact is back is Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley.
Finley saw his nation-leading streak of consecutive throws without an interception end last week at Notre Dame when he threw a pick-six in the third quarter. That interception ended a streak of 339 consecutive passes without throwing an interception dating back to last season, the second-best mark in ACC and N.C. State history.
"I think his track record speaks for itself,” Venables said of the junior quarterback. “A year ago, I think coming into our game he had not thrown a pick, and whatever the streak was, pretty incredible in this day and age. It's not like they’re running the triple-option. He's a very smart, very accurate, great poise, very patient and talented -- easily the best group of skill that they've had and the best group of skill that we've seen this year."
They will face a Tiger defense that ranks in the top 20 in the nation in 14 different statistical categories -- including No. 6 in scoring defense (allowing 13.1 points per game), No. 7 in total defense (allowing 282 yards per game) and No. 7 in pass defense (allowing only 163 yards per game).
While many will see last week’s 35-14 loss to Notre Dame — which saw the Fighting Irish hold the Wolfpack to only 263 yards of total offense -- as a blueprint for how to defend the Wolfpack, Venables believes it was as simple as Notre Dame being sound and well-prepared.
“I think they played good up front and made competitive plays,” Venables said. “Nothing magical -- they were well-prepared and N.C. State missed some opportunities. They moved the ball, but Notre Dame did a good job of causing some turnovers, a tight game, it was back-and-forth.
“It was anybody's game and then it opened up there in the third quarter like a lot of games when you've got two very comparative teams playing and somebody turns the ball over and you're playing at home.
"Really, as much as anything, they were opportunistic and sound in what they did and then outexecuted (N.C. State) in a few critical situations and were able to possess the ball and control the line of scrimmage and run it and made some explosive plays."
The Wolfpack were without running back and all-around athlete Nyheim Hines for the majority of the Notre Dame game as he suffered a “lower body injury” in the first quarter.
However, N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren Monday said he expects Hines to play in Saturday’s game against the Tigers. The addition of Hines, who is the only player in the ACC to post three straight 100-plus rushing games in 2017, means the Tigers will have to be ready for a proven “game-changer.”
"He's just very fast and explosive. Runs with great power and gets to 100 miles an hour in just a few seconds and can fly,” Venables said. “He changed the game a couple of times when we played up their last time -- took one to the house and changed the field and took it back to the 25 or so another time and past the 50 another time. That's how you give up a lot of points too. Give up a few explosive plays and the next thing you know they've got 40 on the board. He's a game-changer.