Tigers’ secondary proves itself against Finley, N.C. State
By Alex Maminakis
CLEMSON — The Clemson Tigers’ defense — specifically the secondary — knew it would face a tough test on Saturday against the ACC’s leading passer in N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley.
Clemson passed that test with flying colors.
In the third-ranked Tigers’ 41-7 win over the No. 16 Wolfpack on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Clemson’s defense limited Finley to 156 passing yards and two interceptions with four pass breakups and no touchdowns.
N.C. State was the sixth-best passing offense in the country going into Saturday’s matchup with 335.4 passing yards per game, and the Tigers rose to the challenge and got the job done.
“I thought our DBs really played well today. Just got their hands on the ball,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “This was a game against a quality opponent from a timing standpoint and a precision standpoint where our guys really showed up and played very aggressive and sure of themselves.”
For much of the early part of this season, and especially after the Tigers allowed 430 passing yards to Texas A&M in Week 2, Clemson’s secondary was talked about outside of the program as being one of the team’s weak links.
After that game in College Station, Texas, Clemson safety K’Von Wallace stood by his fellow defensive backs and challenged any team to throw on them if they thought they could win that way.
On Saturday, Wallace and the secondary faced their biggest test since that game, and they lived up to their standard. Wallace intercepted Finley late in the second quarter and almost returned it for a touchdown, and linebacker Jalen Williams caught an interception early in the third quarter in the red zone to keep the Wolfpack from scoring.
“You feel like we have a weak back seven? Throw it at us,” Wallace said after the game. “We know what we’re capable of, and we are playmakers, all of us.
“We know what people say about us, and we just put our blinders on and we don’t worry about those things. We just go out there and make sure we get that victory.”
Wallace’s interception was his first of the year and third of his career, while Williams’ was the first of the season and second of his career. The multi-interception game was the first by the Clemson defense since the 2017 ACC Championship Game.
“During the Texas A&M game, we gave up a lot of passes, so it was going to be a challenge for us,” Williams said of facing the Wolfpack. “We had two weeks to prepare, and coach Venables called a great defense. You can’t give him two weeks to break it down and prepare, because he will execute.”
Something else Clemson had to prepare for against N.C. State was the Wolfpack’s efficiency on third down — they led the country with a third-down conversion rate of 60.9 percent before Saturday’s game.
Against the Tigers, N.C. State was 2-for-12 on third down — advantage, Clemson.
“They’re a huge third-down team, but they’re really good on third down because of what they do on first down,” Wallace said. “They make sure they don’t have that many tackles for loss, they’ve only been sacked twice before coming into this game. So we knew that we had to play every down like it’s our last, and on third down had to get off the field.”
Saturday’s performance by the Clemson defense against one of the nation’s best passing offenses and a quarterback like Finley — who is getting his share of NFL Draft hype — was part of a statement win.
Against what could be the highest-ranked team Clemson plays this regular season, the Tigers were dominant, and the defense proved it doesn’t have many, if any, weak links.
“What a great win for our football team, just complementing each other and the cohesion — I thought that was easily as well as we’ve played as a team so far this year,” Venables said.
“We want to make a statement every single game, no matter which game it is,” Wallace added. “Blowout or not, we just want to come out victorious and make a statement every single game.”
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