Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Dedrick Mills (26) finds scant running room against Clemson last year at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

Clemson looks to get well against Georgia Tech

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has turned into the option whisperer, apparently coming to recognize the vulnerabilities of that niche attack like he would the voice of a close family member.

Clemson is a horrible host. It gets anywhere within arm’s length of Frank Howard’s rock and it turns surly, having won 26 of its past 27 home games.

And, Clemson, so they say around this proud little exit off I-85, has put its bye week to excellent use, salving the emotional wounds of its puzzling loss to Syracuse on Oct. 13 and refocusing on the business of getting back into the college football playoff mix.

These are just some of the treats awaiting Georgia Tech on its prime-time pilgrimage Saturday to the home of the defending national champion. 

Catching the Tigers any time can be harrowing, all the more so these days now that they have tasted the champion’s life and found it irresistible.  

The many challenges for the two-touchdown underdog Yellow Jackets on Saturday night begins with Clemson’s penchant for unplugging that pesky triple option. Past performance, of course, is no guarantee of future returns. That’s what they say on all the investment shows.

But it is somewhat significant that Venables’ defense has stonewalled the Paul Johnson Project the past two years – holding Tech to 95 and 71 rushing yards. That latter number being the lowest of Johnson’s decade-long run at Tech.

On his radio show this week Johnson was asked about Tech’s run-blocking against Clemson. He flippantly said he’d be all in favor of it, since they haven’t done it in two years.

Venables was more inclined to credit the singers than any song he has written. “Some years we’ve had the advantage at certain positions from a matchup standpoint, and that always makes a big difference. It’s not always your schemes,” he said.

Said his boss, Dabo Swinney, expansive as ever: “We’ve had a bunch of good players who have bought into this scheme of what it takes.

“This is not easy defense to play. You got guys being cut (blocked) left and right. You have to be able to play the cut blocks. Be able to change your thinking about how you’ve been coached all year long to now it’s option football. Be able to take the type of angles you have to take, defeat blocks. Your eyes are keying different things than what you’ve been keying all year long.”

All this, the Clemson defense has done better than anyone else Tech has faced recently.

And the Tigers still have the personnel to make Tech’s life very difficult. Like linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, a senior whose top three tackle totals have all been against the Jackets. Last year, with eight tackles, two for a loss, was a modest performance by his standards.

“For me personally, I feel I’m at an advantage (playing the option) because I can showcase my sideline-to-sideline movement and defending the run,” O’Daniel said.

Here, you will even find the rare defensive players who profess to enjoy playing against Johnson’s Three Card Monte of an offense.

“I like it, I think it’s an old-school kind of football,” junior linebacker Kendall Joseph said. “Do your job play-in and play-out and just be tough.

“It’s a mindset. It’s simple. It’s being tough, having an attitude about you. Stay on your feet. Do that and you have a chance to win.”

One reason this game landed in such a preferred time slot (8 p.m.) is the national curiosity concerning Clemson’s mood coming off the Syracuse loss. Until that stumble in upstate New York, it appeared for all the world that the Tigers and Alabama were certain to collide a third consecutive year for the national championship. Of more local concern, the Tigers’ state of mind certainly will affect Tech this weekend, too.

A year ago, later in the season, Clemson lost in similarly perplexing fashion to Pitt. The next week it beat Wake Forest by 22. It ran off four more wins on the way to a national title, including a 31-point victory over Ohio State in the semifinal.

The Tigers got well then. Can they repeat that model, with still much in front of them?

“I’m anxious to see,” Swinney said.

“They ain’t lost very much around here,” he said, speaking for his current roster. 

“We lost (at Syracuse), man. But we’re winners,” Joseph declared. “That’s where this program is at. It’s who we are. We got out-played for one night, but that doesn’t define us. We’ve moved on. We’ve seen the mistakes from that game, digested and learned from them. We know who we are and that what we’ve been doing works.”

There seems to be no crisis of confidence hereabouts that Tech may exploit come Saturday. 

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