Clemson has proven its got a capable young replacement for Heisman Trophy contender Trevor Lawrence. The top-ranked Tigers, though, are still searching for consistent answers for a banged-up, depleted defense that faces its biggest test at No. 4 Notre Dame.
Clemson (7-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) rallied from 18 points down with freshman DJ Uiagalelei replacing Lawrence, who had tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the showdown against the Fighting Irish (6-0, 5-0 ACC) on Saturday night.
It won’t matter who starts at quarterback if the Tigers can’t get their defensive issues under control.
Clemson has given up 49 points the past two weeks in wins over Syracuse and Boston College after allowing 60 combined it first five games.
Much of that is due to injuries to critical players like linebacker James Skalski, who Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said is the “heart and soul” of the defense.
Clemson has also played without injured starting linebacker Mike Jones Jr. and three starters on the defensive line: tackles Tyler Davis and Jordan Williams and end Justin Foster.
Skalski has a groin injury and is expected to miss additional games. Skalski will travel to Notre Dame, Swinney said, using his senior voice to aid the Tigers.
Swinney wasn’t sure yet Tuesday who, if any, of Clemson’s injured veterans had made enough progress to play.
Safety Nolan Turner said the team has done well cross-training experienced players for multiple roles and developing younger newcomers to fill in.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who understand the defense and understand what we’re trying to do. It’s been good to see guys help make up for some of the injuries we have,” Turner said.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables cringed discussing the big plays he watched his team allow the past two weeks. There was an 83-yard touchdown pass by Syracuse and passes of 37 and 48 yards by Boston College early as it scored touchdowns on their first two possessions.
“We couldn’t get out of own way at times, that was obvious,” said Venables, who’s directed Clemson’s defense since 2012. “It’s a calamity of errors.”
Mistakes that almost — but didn’t — cost them wins.
Syracuse, which trailed 17-0, made it a one-possession game at 27-21 late in the third quarter before Clemson pulled away for the 47-21 victory.
Things looked even more dire against BC, which led 28-10 in the opening half and gained 228 yards with scoring drives of 74, 75 and 75 yards.
The Tigers, though, were able to right themselves both times when it counted most.
A defensive scoop and score fumble return touchdown against Syracuse by cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. restored control for Clemson.
The Tigers’ D again rose up in the second half against Boston College, holding the Eagles to 47 yards and no points in Clemson’s come-from-behind win.
“It wasn’t like we all these magic calls,” Venables said. “Our guys decided to have a will to win, a will to fight, a will to compete.”
Venables knows determination alone won’t be enough against the Fighting Irish, who’ve averaged more than 34 points and 437 yards a game this season.
“We still got a million things to be better at,” Venables said.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly sees a Clemson defense loaded with depth and talent, whoever is out there.
“We’re going to prepare for the No. 1 team in the country and the guys they roll out, they’re going be pretty good,” Kelly said.
Linebacker Jake Venables, the defensive coordinator’s son who’s started for Skalski the last two weeks, believes his teammates understand the lapses can’t continue.
“It’s definitely a big blow” losing starters, the younger Venables said. “But the guys that have to step up, just have to step up and they’ve got to bring everybody with them.”