As the season nears the start of its final quarter, fifth-ranked Clemson isn’t the top dog on defense in the Atlantic Coast Conference, its calling card in its rise to national prominence seven years ago. But don’t count out the Tigers just yet.
No. 16 Syracuse, with its aggressive 3-3-5 defensive scheme under coordinator Tony White, quickly ascended to the top spot after opening the season with a convincing 31-7 victory over nemesis Louisville and its multitalented quarterback Malik Cunningham. The Orange (6-1, 3-1 ACC) lead the conference in scoring defense (15.14 points per game), tied for sixth nationally, and total defense (296.20 yards per game), 16th nationally. North Carolina State (310.9), Florida State (332), and Clemson (332.5) round out the conference’s top four in total defense and the Wolfpack (16.86) and Clemson (19.88) trail the Orange in scoring defense. The Tigers remain No. 1 against the run (87.9), well ahead of Miami (112.7), N.C. State (122.4) and Syracuse (123.3).
“The Mob,” the nickname the Syracuse defenders have adopted, isn’t interested in the numbers.
“We game plan and do what we do,” said Orange defensive lineman Caleb Okechukwu, who had a pick-6 in a two-point win over Purdue. “I guess right now it looks that way, that we’re at the top of the conference, and that’s a blessing. But that’s just not really our main focus. Our goal is to be the best defense we can be and let everybody else worry about the numbers.”
North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren has had a bird’s-eye view of the ACC’s top defensive units — the Wolfpack have played Clemson, Florida State and Syracuse in succession, and his unit tops the ACC with 11 interceptions, three behind national leader Wisconsin and one more than Louisville.
“We’re taking the ball away at a high rate. Our interceptions are great,” Doeren said. “We’re defending the run well. We’re really good on third down. There’s a lot of really positive things.”
Other numbers: Led by Clemson’s 8.2 tackles for loss per game, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest are averaging seven or more per game; Duke leads the nation with 15 fumble recoveries and is second in turnover margin (1.75); Louisville is sixth in red zone defense (.680); Louisville, Miami and Virginia are in the top 15 in sacks, averaging more than three a game, and Miami and N.C. State are tied for 10th in first down defense, with the Orange 14th.
Virginia has a new coach in Tony Elliott after the abrupt departure of Bronco Mendenhall following last season and it’s been a little bit of a struggle. The Cavaliers lost three straight before last week’s 16-9 victory over Georgia Tech got them back on track. Virginia yielded only 202 yards of total offense, the fewest against an ACC/FBS opponent since 2013, and it included eight sacks, the second-most ever in a game in program history.
“We had a tough stretch with those three in a row. We’ve played some good defenses this year,” said Elliott, whose defense relies on the leadership and aggressive play of linebacker Chico Bennett Jr., who has six sacks, one off the national lead. “Those guys are playing with tremendous effort.”
Clemson has a defensive weakness and it was on full display in a double-overtime win over Wake Forest. Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman repeatedly victimized the Clemson secondary, throwing for six touchdowns, but the main victim — cornerback Nate Wiggins — atoned by knocking away Hartman’s pass in the end zone on the final play to preserve a 51-45 victory. The Tigers are ranked 91st nationally in pass defense (224.6 ypg), while the Orange are 10th (171.4).
North Carolina State had a bye last week, which allowed Doeren the chance to watch Syracuse-Clemson. The Tigers prevailed 27-21 with a fourth-quarter rally led by backup quarterback Cade Klubnik, a freshman. The Mob sent starter DJ Uiagalelei to the bench after forcing four turnovers and Syracuse led 21-10 at halftime in Death Valley. But the Clemson defense responded by pitching a shutout in the second half and the Orange only netted one score off those turnovers — a 90-yard fumble return by Ja’Had Carter — in suffering their first loss of the season. Clemson’s Will Shipley also ran for a career-high 172 yards, 50 coming on a scoring run to atone for a lost fumble earlier in the game. Syracuse entered the game allowing 95 rushing yards per game.
“That was a good football game, watching those two teams fight,” Doeren said. “You’ve got to give Clemson a lot of credit for coming back. But as far as who’s better, they’re different. They’re both really good.”
AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Virginia, Aaron Beard in North Carolina, Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina, and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.