CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said the Tigers' struggling defense can be fixed this season, despite the second-worst showing in school history in last week's loss at Florida State.
No. 17 Clemson (3-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) gave up 667 yards in the 49-37 loss to the Seminoles, a total surpassed only by the 771 the team allowed 12 years ago in a 54-7 defeat — also at Florida State.
The Tigers have had their defensive issues since the season began. With a third of the season gone, Clemson's given up at least 350 in its four games and stands 100th nationally in rushing yards allowed at more than 206 a game.
"I'm as frustrated and disappointed, I'd like to think, as anybody at the issues," Venables said Tuesday. "But we can (improve) and I expect that we will."
Clemson looked poise to pull off a stunning surprise at Doak Campbell Stadium, ahead 31-21 nearing the end of the third quarter. That's when things fell apart for the Tigers as the Seminoles scored four touchdowns in about a 12-minute span to take control.
Venables said his group had plenty of chances to lock up the game in the second half. "We didn't answer the bell, not one time," he said.
Things could get rockier down the road, too, especially if teams use Florida State's gameplan as the blueprint on how to beat the Tigers.
The Seminoles had a pair of 100-yard rushers in Chris Thompson (103 yards) and quarterback EJ Manuel (102 yards on 11 carries). When Clemson tried to clamp down at the line, Manuel took to the air. He completed 27 of 35 passes for 380 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Venables and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney insisted the problems are not from a lack of defensive talent. Venables pointed to alignment errors and mistakes at critical times. He also blamed himself for allowing his players to get worn down and not rotating in fresher defenders earlier when Clemson was standing toe-to-toe with Florida State in building the lead.
Several times, Venables acknowledged the Tigers got beat by a Florida State team performing at its peak.
"We've got to get our guys better," the longtime Oklahoma defensive coordinator said. "And we ran into a buzzsaw, let's face it."
Neither Venables nor Swinney expected wholesale personnel changes when the Tigers head to Boston College (1-2, 0-1) on Saturday. Clemson's lost two of its three games on Chestnut Hill since the Eagles joined the conference in 2005.
Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig leads the ACC in passing yards and total offense per game. "This is not your typical Boston College team. It's been a long time since we've seen them lead the league in passing," Swinney said.
The Eagles also feature three of the ACC's top four tackles, led by fifth-year linebacker Nick Clancy.
"Nick has been, I guess the right word is a pleasant surprise," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said. "He got an opportunity and made the most of it."
Clemson now needs help if it hopes for a third trip to the ACC title game in the past four years. Florida State would need to lose twice to open up the door while the Tigers can't give away games it's favored to win.
"I feel like we're still in the car" with Florida State, linebacker Jonathan Willard said. "But now maybe we're in the back seat."
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd called a players-only meeting when the team got back from Florida to make sure the Tigers were focused on looking forward and not behind. Boyd said the team was still capable of great things this season.
"With that kind of loss, I just felt (meeting) was something that was needed," Boyd said.
Boyd said there was enough failure down the stretch to go around at Clemson and said the offense was not upset at the defense's struggles.
Venables saw hurt and angry players in the locker room afterward, something that proved to him his defenders cared about losing as much as he did as coach. He said he'll concentrate on fundamentals this week, things like finishing tackles, making the right calls and taking the correct routes on defense. Venables said his young players — Clemson starts five freshmen or sophomores among its front seven — will improve and tighten up what's been a porous defense.
"Sometimes," he said. "You've got to fail in order to grow."