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Clemson defense steps up big on opening night

Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire

Quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense likely want a mulligan after the first game of the season Saturday night. On the other hand, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables slept very comfortably.

The No. 2 team in the country has lost at least eight defensive starters each of the last two years, but somehow, when needed, the Tigers’ defense has come up huge, and it did once again in Clemson’s narrow 19-13 victory over Auburn in Week 1.

Clemson held Auburn to just 262 yards of offense, including just 87 rushing yards despite missing defensive end Austin Bryant, who was expected to start until suffering a foot injury about two weeks ago. Clemson’s defense was strong all game, but it was particularly dominant in the first half. Auburn gained only 38 yards before halftime, but once the home team finally moved the ball, Clemson’s defense forced mistakes and tightened up in the red zone.

Excluding the final drive, which ended with a Hail Mary attempt near midfield, Auburn made four trips to the red zone on its last four possessions, yet totaled only 10 points on those drives. Two drives ended on turnovers, one a fumble inside the 5-yard line and the other an interception on the goal line. Both of those turnovers came on fourth-down attempts.

One has to wonder how different this game would have been had Auburn coach Gus Malzahn been more willing to kick field goals in the red zone on those possessions, but he was trying to jump -tart an otherwise dormant offense, and the Clemson defense kept it asleep.

The possession prior to the four straight trips to the red zone also had the looks of a promising one for Auburn, but that ended with an interception when Clemson senior safety Jadar Johnson picked off a deep pass inside the 10.

Johnson ultimately enabled Clemson to avoid disaster. He defended Auburn’s final two passes in the end zone, knocking down each of them in the final 10 seconds to preserve the six-point victory.

Auburn actually outgained Clemson, 224-166, in the second half, but the failure to convert more of those drives into points was the difference. Clemson held Auburn to 3-for-17 on third downs.

Despite being the No. 2 team in the country, growing pains were expected on defense for Clemson due to the roster’s lack of experience. However, returning starter and defensive captain Ben Boulware produced a terrific game Saturday. He forced a fumble on fourth and 1 inside the 5 and then picked off Auburn quarterback Sean White at the goal line.

Clemson has two “easy” games next against Troy and South Carolina State, but even so, it’s vital Boulware continues to lead the Tigers’ defense until some of the young stars develop more.

They got a good start against Auburn.

A number of young defensive players improved, particularly on the defensive line. Sophomore Christian Wilkins and freshman Dexter Lawrence both played extremely well in their first starts. Wilkins recovered the fumble Boulware forced in the second half, and at one point, both defensive linemen were used as fullbacks on a fourth-and-1 play, paving the way for running back Wayne Gallman to score his first touchdown.

Fans should keep in mind this performance doesn’t automatically mean the Tigers’ defense will be dominant again in 2016. Auburn finished outside the top 70 of the FBS in both points and yards per game, and its offense again didn’t look very good. Auburn struggled to pick (and stick with) a quarterback all night, and that indecision seemed to affect its offensive rhythm.

We will need a larger sample size to clearly see if Clemson is going to field a top-10 defense again, but as far as Week 1 goes, the unit passed with flying colors.

Clemson defense steps up big on opening night

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