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Clemson holds off Auburn: Leans on Bryant, defense


The old adage is that defense wins championships, but it can also win regular season games, too. Clemson played Auburn at Death Valley for Part Two of the home-home series and made a strong statement for why they should return to the College Football Championship for the third year in a row.

Austin Bryant had a career night recording seven total tackles, four of which were sacks. Kelly Bryant survived an injury scare to return and lead Clemson to a couple of touchdown drives before and after halftime.

Clemson’s defense did not look good early. Multiple times Auburn was on the ropes, but a miscue or penalty extended the drive. The defense was able to force a field goal despite Auburn getting to the goal line. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables made sure to call plays that wouldn’t leave the defense vulnerable to a pass, but still stuff the run. Auburn was likely to lean on their rushing attack anyway, but it failed against Clemson’s defensive line.

Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson’s strong side linebacker, was quoted saying, “If the back seven holds up in coverage and the D-line is able to get to the quarterback: they scratch our back, we scratch theirs.” The defensive line was helped out by strong coverage and the secondary was helped by block shedding and pressure from the defensive line. O’Daniel had a great night as well, recording a career-high 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss.

Offensively, Clemson looked subpar in the first half. Kelly Bryant missed some throws, Ray-Ray McCloud set up Auburn’s second field goal by fumbling and Greg Huegel missed a 46-yard attempt that was so bad, one would almost have believed the kicked was blocked.

Bryant had a scare when he took a late hit from Jameal Dean on a pass to Hunter Renfrow. He attempted to get up, but clutched his left shoulder and collapsed back onto the field. Zerrick Cooper briefly replaced Bryant, but it didn’t result in any points.

Returning to the field, Bryant led the Tigers on their first sustained drive of the game. McCloud pulled down an over-the-shoulder catch on the Auburn 9-yard line for a first down and a chance at their first touchdown. Bryant completed a short pass to Renfrow and then ran for a short touchdown on the very next play.

Bryant has never been a pass-first type of quarterback. His reads consist of the first and, maybe, second receiver, but if he gets pressured he will make a break out of the pocket. Tajh Boyd used to do the same thing and it hurt Clemson’s offense because other receivers could no longer be found downfield. Deshaun Watson was always looking downfield until he was sure the play was blown, but Bryant ducks his head and disregards the downfield options.

The second half was all Clemson all the time. Kelly Bryant ran for his second touchdown of the game, and the defense put enough pressure on Auburn’s quarterback Jarrett Stidham to create a diamond. Auburn had no room to run and rarely completed a pass. If they did manage to catch a ball, it was for nominal gain at best.

Clemson had one notable injury on defense with Van Smith out at free safety with a knee injury. Sophomore K’Von Wallace started instead and performed admirably in his stead.

Ryan Carter, a senior cornerback, praised Wallace’s play on the back end after the game. “He was locked in all week,” Carter said. “He knew that with [Van] down he would have to step up and make big plays. I thought, in my opinion, that there was no difference between him and Van.”

Some interesting statistics: Clemson is one of three teams in the FBS to have not given up a touchdown yet; Clemson recorded a school-high 11 sacks in one game (Auburn has not given up more than 19 in an entire season with Gus Malzahn as the head coach); Auburn ran one less play than Clemson despite having five more minutes of possession time.

Clemson’s next game will be against ACC rival Louisville on the road. The game was rescheduled from its original 3:30 start time to 8:00 p.m. to accommodate College Gameday. If the defensive line is just as dominate as it was against Auburn, Lamar Jackson won’t have a chance.

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