CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has spent a lot of time watching No. 8 North Carolina score quickly. And he’s sharing them all with players in film sessions that get quite repetitive.
“It’s ‘How you like this play? How about this play? How about that score?'” Venables said Tuesday. “First play of the Duke game, it’s all jacked up, in state rivalry, then they run the flea flicker. Touchdown, 80 yards.”
Venables knows the difficult challenge ahead for No. 1 Clemson (12-0) in slowing down the Tar Heels (11-1) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday night.
North Carolina is 16th nationally in yards gained at better than 494 a game. More impressive, in Venables’ view, is how fast the Tar Heels can strike.
“There’s a lot of explosive play-makers” on UNC’s offense, Venables said.
But Venables without options; Clemson has a few play-makers on defense, too. Defensive end Shaq Lawson leads the country in tackles for loss. Linebacker B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware have combined for 234 tackles, 22 of those behind the line of scrimmage.
No one at Clemson was completely sure how long it would take this year’s defense to come together. The Tigers lost eight starters off last season’s No. 1 ranked defense in the country, including first-round NFL draft picks in defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony.
If that wasn’t enough, linebacker Korrin Wiggins hurt his knee in camp and starting defensive tackle D.J. Reader took an extended leave of absence from the team for personal reasons in late August.
Through it all, Clemson ended the regular-season seventh nationally in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing 288 yards a game.
“I thought we had a chance to be solid,” Venables said. “But probably not to the same level” as 2014.
They’ll need that to corral the Tar Heels, who’ve scored 38 points or more in eight of their 12 games this season. They scored 66 points in that Duke contest, then had 59 a week later against Miami on the way to the ACC’s Coastal Division crown.
Venables called North Carolina the best offense Clemson’s faced all season, including Notre Dame and Florida State. If the Tigers don’t bring their best effort, the perfect season and trip to the College Football Playoff could easily slip away Saturday night.
“The margin for error is less because of the opponent,” Venables said.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora is equally awed by Clemson’s defense.
“This is best football team we’ve have faced,” he said. “I mean, they’re the number one team in the country. And they’ve been that way for how many weeks? So they’re really good.”
Clemson’s defense, though, has gone through a late-season slide.
In its first seven games, only two opponents in Notre Dame and Georgia Tech scored 20 or more points against the Tigers. Clemson is giving up an average of 25 points a game allowed its final five contests.
South Carolina scored its most points all season in a 37-32 loss to the Tigers last week — most of it coming after Clemson had taken a 28-10 lead.
Lawson, Clemson’s junior defensive end, said the Tigers have been prepping for their league title game all season and will be ready to go at North Carolina this weekend.
The Tar Heels worst offensive showing was their first game, an inexplicable 17-13 loss to the Gamecocks at the title game site, Bank of America Stadium.
“Ever since then they’ve been on fire,” said Lawson, Clemson’s junior lineman.
But Clemson’s has practicing all season, Lawson said, against their own high-flying attack, which leads the ACC in total yards this season and can be as quick-strike as the Tar Heels.
“We’re used to going against their offense because that’s what our offense does against us when we’re going to practice every week,” he said. “So it’s not a big challenge for us. We’ve just got to be ready to play.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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