By Tyler Fenwick | @Ty_Fenwick
Sports Capital Journalism Program
TAMPA, Fla. — When Clemson desperately needed its defense to get a stop in the fourth quarter of last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, the Tigers couldn’t do it.
Alabama scored three touchdowns and a field goal in the final 13 minutes for a 45-40 win, giving Nick Saban his fifth national title.
“To be undefeated, to be the best team in the country, and to go out there and lay an egg in the national championship on the biggest stage, especially as a defense, it’s not a great feeling,” said senior linebacker Ben Boulware, who had three tackles in that game.
The Clemson defense shouldered the blame after last year’s loss, and it knows it’s not looking at an easier task this time around. Alabama is still coming to impose its will, and the Tigers know it.
“We’re ready for that,” said redshirt junior safety Korrin Wiggins.
This season, the Tigers had to replace seven defensive players that were selected in the 2016 National Football League draft, the most in the nation and the most in one season in Clemson history. Despite those losses, the Tigers ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense, eighth in total defense, fifth in sacks, third in tackles for loss, sixth in interceptions and fourth in pass efficiency defense.
But there is that sense of unfinished business, the decisive moments of the season that ended a year ago in Arizona.
Part of the drag that the Clemson defense felt a year ago was a daring, perfectly-executed Alabama onside kick with just over 10 minutes to play. The Crimson Tide recovered and turned it into a touchdown to go up 31-24.
That touchdown marked the second time Clemson lost track of Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who had a career game with 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
“We completely ignored him, I know, last year,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “So we did a terrible job at defending him, obviously. And if we do it again, we’ll lose again.”
Boulware, who leads the Tigers this season with 121 tackles, was frustrated with the way his defense performed a year ago, but he also maintains that the fixes aren’t difficult.
“We feel like within a couple of five or six plays that weren’t even contested at all, we thought it would have been a closer game,” said Boulware. “So, obviously, as a defense, we felt all that weight on our shoulders that we lost that game.”
According to Wiggins, there are three basic things on the to-do list in order for Clemson to avoid a repeat of last season.
“Read your keys, trust your keys, know the game plan.”