WHO: Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2 ACC) at No. 9 Clemson (8-1, 6-1)
WHEN: Thurs. Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Brent Venables typically has a short memory when he speaks to reporters postgame.
All that really shapes the his mood is how his Clemson defense performed in the fourth quarter.
Which is why he was as peeved after the Tigers’ 40-27 victory at Maryland Oct. 26 as he was pleased after their 59-10 win at Virginia on Saturday.
How they finish is all that matters.
“Much better. Much better. That’s a sign of improvement from a week ago, letting them in late,” Clemson’s defensive coordinator said Saturday.
It’s strange, because statistically, No. 8 Clemson (8-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) has actually avoided serious fourth-quarter dropoffs in the fourth quarter this year. Opponents have rushed for 2.7 yards per carry in the fourth — a full yard below their season figure — and completed just 49 percent of their passes, the lowest of any quarter.
By quarter, Clemson has allowed 52 points in the first, 45 in the second, 44 in the third and 44 in the fourth.
However, it grinds Venables’ gears when Georgia goes 64 yards in 5 plays to score with 1:19 remaining, cutting a 10-point deficit to three. Or when S.C. State gets a 51-yard touchdown pass or N.C. State records a 23-play touchdown drive or Maryland posts 14 points in the final six minutes.
“That’s not a sign of maturity,” Venables said. “If you’re a competitor, you don’t like that. Same calls are working for 50 minutes, then all of a sudden they don’t … you hate that. Your job is to keep people out of the end zone. For me personally, it takes a little bit of shine off it. Well, you won and that’s all fine, but it still eats at you. And hopefully it eats at our guys.
“To finish with your guard down and sloppy play is very disappointing. A little bit of a concern.”
Even though all those outcomes were no longer in doubt, Venables despises the notion of a prevent defense with a healthy lead for a few reasons.
One, he’s seen teams choke away such leads when they’re overly careful. When he was at Oklahoma, the Sooners coughed up a 17-point third-quarter lead to Colorado in 2007, for example.
“Everybody puts their guard down, plays not to lose, and then tries to do too much,” Venables said. “Then you don’t do anything right and you lose the game.”
Two, it looks bad on the final stat sheet. Clemson enters its bye week with the No. 31-rated total defense (363.9 yards allowed), much improved from last year’s No. 64 unit, but Venables is serious when he argues this could be a top-15 defense.
“There’s nothing more pleasing as a coach than seeing your guys get a little bit better. That’s what the good teams do,” Venables said. “Nothing is more displeasing than seeing the guys regress. Knock on wood, haven’t seen that.”
And three, the Clemson way is letting the starters give way to the backups, which the Tigers did for more than a quarter and a half Saturday.
“There’s a bunch of third- and fourth-team guys, a few walk-ons out there, having an opportunity to play. They work incredibly hard,” Venables said. “So when you get the opportunity, it’s always good to see them go out and perform.”
The Clemson coordinators are almost impossible to impress, especially Venables. As recently as Tuesday, he was disgusted with the practice of letting teams like N.C. State and Maryland hang around at home, even though the Tigers won those games by 12 and 13 points.
“Immediately after (the Maryland game), he told us we had a great game, but he was real disappointed about those two drives,” junior safety Robert Smith said. “He knew we were better than that, and as a defense, we knew we were better than that. Those two touchdowns at the end shouldn’t have come.
“We never want to give up more points than we need to. That came Day 1 from when he got here. He’s big on giving great effort and being intense all the time.”
That’s why Monday morning, when Clemson’s defense meets to break down Virginia game tape, it won’t watch the good plays. It will watch the bad plays. It’s been that way every week with Venables running the show.
“We haven’t arrived, by any stretch,” Venables said. “But you don’t have to play at a superhuman level to play sound and consistent.”