Clemson Chad Smith

Linebacker Chad Smith and the Clemson defense had lots of reasons to celebrate the performance against Auburn Saturday night. More photos at TheTandD.com

DONNYKNIGHTPHOTOGRAPHY.SMUGMUG.COM

CLEMSON— “They’re the defending national champs. They’re one of the best defenses in college football.”

Those were the words spoken by Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn Saturday night, following the Clemson Tigers' 14-6 victory — a defensive performance that the Clemson faithful had not seen the likes of in a very long time.

“Man, that’s about as good of defensive performance as I’ve seen in a long time,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We really just played dominant football defensively.”

While many across the nation expected the Clemson defense to be dynamic this season, returning seven starters off a squad that finished last season ranked eighth in total defense, one would be hard-pressed to expect the dominance shown in their first two games.

The Clemson defense has allowed a total of nine points. The last time a Tiger defense allowed nine points through the first two games was the 2000 season, a 38-0 victory over The Citadel and a 62-9 win over Missouri.

“I love it. That’s what we came to Clemson for,” defensive end Austin Bryant said. “That’s what you come to a school like this for — playing these big games and for it not to be an easy game, but to be a tough game. Football players are tough-minded people and tonight it showed that we were the most prepared team.”

Bryant led a dominant Tiger defense, tying the Clemson single-game sack record with four of Clemson’s 11 sacks against Auburn. Bryant became just the third Clemson player to have four sacks in a game, joining Keith Adams (1999) an Andre Branch (2011).

But for the junior defensive end, it was a complete team effort that allowed him to have the success against the Auburn offense.

“We were all together, the two inside guys were pushing him out to me and (Clelin Ferrell) and we were pushing him (Jarrett Stidham) up in the pocket to Dexter (Lawrence) and Christian (Wilkins),” Bryant said. “So it was just a great effort by all four of us working together as one unit.”

Clemson’s defense has allowed 11.4 points per game, 223 yards per game and 3.53 yards per play in the last five out-of-conference games, which include Auburn twice, Ohio State, South Carolina and Alabama.

But even with the Tigers' recent history of playing well in the biggest of games, there was still some doubt — especially with so many new pieces on offense — as to how the 2017 team would respond when faced with adversity.

And the Tigers faced adversity Saturday night — falling behind 6-0. And they showed the nation what they were made of.

“We prepared all week. We knew that they had a really good quarterback, really good skill guys, but we just brought our intensity every day during practice this week and it showed up tonight on the field,” Bryant said. “It just shows that we answered a lot of questions about can we handle adversity."

The Tigers will now take their No. 2 ranking on the road for the first time this season as they head to Louisville to face a dynamic Cardinals’ offense led by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. It will surely be the biggest challenge of the season for both teams.

Louisville (2-0) has averaged 614.5 yards of offense through their first two games (fifth nationally). Clemson is allowing 118.5 yards per game on defense — currently second in the nation behind only Air Force, which has played only one game and allowed 95 yards.

For Bryant and the rest of the Tigers, this weekend’s matchup against No. 14 Louisville is the biggest game of the year.

“It’s the biggest game of the season because it’s the next one,” Bryant said. “We all know that Lamar Jackson is very dynamic player. It’s going to be a great challenge trying to bottle him up, so we’re just going to prepare this week and then see what happens this weekend.”

Swinney impressed

A day removed from Clemson’s 14-6 victory over Auburn, Swinney was even more impressed with his team after watching the film — both on offense and defense.

“We’ve just had a chance to review everything. A lot of fun watching the tape. A heck of a game, watching both teams,” Swinney said Sunday. “Just proud of our guys, the effort, the toughness to finish. It was a gritty game and one where we can grow our team. We needed to be battle-tested before conference play. Hopefully it’ll pay off for us.

“Defensively just tremendous and dominant in all three levels. Just consistency in how we performed. We tackled well. Offensively we have a lot we can improve on, the big plays from Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow were important. The turnovers were unfortunate. All in all, a lot of positives from the game. It was a hard-fought game.”

GameDay again

For the eighth straight season (2010-2017), the Clemson Tigers will be featured on ESPN College GameDay, as it was announced Sunday that the matchup between the No. 2 Clemson Tigers and No. 14 Louisville Cardinals in Louisville would be the site of the three-hour long pregame show.

In response to GameDay being on campus, the game time for the matchup between the two Atlantic division rivals has been moved from 3:30 p.m. to the network's primetime slot of 8 p.m. (ABC).

Players of the week

  • Offensive Player of the Week— Kelly Bryant and Hunter Renfrow

  •  Defensive Player of the Week— Austin Bryant
  •  Special Teams Player of the Week— Will Spiers

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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