Defense finishes strong after ugly start

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
2:24
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The play was wide open for the second time.

In the first half, Sammy Watkins had overthrown the receiver. In the second half, he didn't miss. Clemson's second crack at the trick play went 52 yards for a touchdown and put the Tigers up 28-14.

Jimbo Fisher needed to stop the bleeding, and the Florida State defense was hemorrhaging yards. So he pulled them together on the sideline and offered a reminder. He told them they'd fallen short of the hype, but that was OK. It's how they responded that mattered.

"I saw the look, and you start to get a little disgust, and you feel frustrated," Fisher said. "They've been told how great they are for a year-and-a-half. Nobody can play that way all the time. I told them to forget all that. Just go back, regroup, and we'll win this."

For the first three weeks of the season, everything came easily for Florida State's top-ranked defense. On Saturday, Tajh Boyd and Clemson spent the first 35 minutes of the game shining a spotlight on every chink in the armor.

But Fisher promised redemption if the unit could find its footing in the second half, and that's exactly what happened.

Watkins' touchdown pass meant Clemson had tallied 426 yards of offense on its first 44 plays. The Tigers mustered just 106 more on their next 33 plays.

"We knew it was not going to be easy," defensive end Bjoern Werner said. "But we have a goal at the end of the season, and we know there are going to be tough games like that. But that's a game you're going to remember for a while."

The touchdown pass from Watkins was emblematic of how Clemson attacked Florida State's vaunted defense. It didn't chip away on the ground or look for yardage over the middle. The Tigers dug deep into the playbook, pulling out trick plays and long throws.

It wasn't a surprise, and yet it was utterly overwhelming.

"We knew that was going to come," tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "Teams aren't going to play us straight up."

As the game wore on, however, Clemson ran out of tricks, and the physicality of Florida State's defensive front took control.

The defensive line took control of the line of scrimmage, and Boyd found less and less time to throw before he was flushed from the pocket. When under duress Saturday, Boyd completed just two of 10 passes for 55 yards and threw his lone interception.

"We just had to start getting more penetration, especially in the middle," Jernigan said. "We had to put the center and the guard in his lap and make him think fast."

The key wasn't a change in scheme, Jernigan said. It was simply a matter of outworking the Clemson offensive line for four quarters.

It was a game that could've gotten out of hand, he admits. But rather than back down as Clemson pulled ahead, the defense turned up the heat.

"I know when I'm tired, when I see the guy in front of me breathing harder, it's time to get them now," Jernigan said. "It's time to go. Once we see that, we're coming."

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