Tigers’ depleted defense gets the job done
By Eric Sprott
CLEMSON — It wasn’t until Saturday morning when defensive tackle Albert Huggins learned he was going to get the first starting nod of his career when Clemson faced Florida State at Memorial Stadium.
For J.D. Davis, he got word during pregame warm-ups that he was going to take Kendall Joseph’s spot at WILL linebacker for Clemson after he couldn’t go due to a leg injury.
A handful of other players also went down during the fourth-ranked Tigers’ 31-14 victory at Memorial Stadium, but outside of a handful of plays, there was little drop-off as Clemson bottled up Florida State for the better part of the victory that secured their third consecutive Atlantic Division championship.
And for Davis, a former Daniel High School standout, the defense’s ability to hold strong had everything to do with its collective approach on a week-in, week-out basis.
“Everybody prepares like they’re starters,” said Davis, who finished with a team-high seven tackles, including 1.5 for loss. “We have a next-man-up mentality, and it’s our mentality that we shouldn’t have any drop-off. I guess we just stuck to that.”
The Tigers (9-1, 6-1 ACC) were missing Dexter Lawrence with a nagging ankle injury in addition to the loss of Joseph. The Tigers later lost starting linebacker Tre Lamar to a stinger in his left arm, while cornerback Ryan Carter left with a possible — but unconfirmed — concussion and safety Tanner Muse, who’s been battling a wrist injury, also was pulled from action.
Playing in place of Lawrence, Huggins finished with four tackles, including two for loss and a sack.
“It felt good to have fun on the field,” Huggins said. “I felt loose, and I felt like I was ready to play and that I had a good game.
“When your opportunity comes up, you have to be ready.”
Despite all the injuries that piled up — in addition to already being without defensive backs Marcus Edmonds and Mark Fields with foot injuries — the Tigers held Florida State (3-6, 3-5) to just 229 yards on the night, including just 21 rushing yards on 24 carries. The Seminoles’ leading rusher, Cam Akers, was held to 12 carries for 40 yards, and the Tigers piled up five sacks of Florida State freshman quarterback James Blackman and 10 tackles for loss by seven different players.
“It says a lot about the way we recruit guys that can play,” said defensive end Austin Bryant, who accounted for one of the five sacks. “Our coaches do a great job developing people to have that depth where if somebody goes down, it’s the next guy up. It’s big late in the season, because you never know when somebody’s going to hurt.”
The Tigers’ defense also came through when it mattered most, as Florida State trailed just 17-14 when quarterback Kelly Bryant fumbled the ball away with 6:46 to play at the Clemson 40-yard line.
On the very next play, safety Van Smith came away with his first interception of the year, returning the ball into Florida State territory to set up a 1-yard Travis Etienne touchdown that ballooned the lead back to 10 points.
“Outside of a couple of plays, I thought the defense was the story of the night,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We played a lot of guys, and a lot of backups tonight.
“We knew we were going to have to play some people, good teams win games like that.”
“A bunch of guys were down, and a lot of guys did a good job answering the bell,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables added. “The guys who had their opportunities were ready for it and made the most of it. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Clemson shut out the Seminoles in the first half for the first time since 2003 — a 26-10 win at Memorial Stadium. … Clemson defeated Florida State for the ninth time in the last 14 matchups between the teams, and Saturday marked the 13th time in the last 16 matchups that the home team won in the series. … Swinney won his 98th game as the Tigers’ head coach, tying him with Bill Dooley for the fourth-most wins by an ACC coach in conference history. The 98 wins also serve as the fifth-highest win total for any head coach in his first 10 years as a head coach. … Former Daniel standout D.J. Greenlee hauled in his first reception of the season — a 32-yard grab from Kelly Bryant.
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