No. 14 Clemson's defense takes step forward


No. 14 Clemson's defense takes step forward

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard hasn't had it easy on campus, despite the 14th-ranked Tigers' fast start this year.

Willard said it's difficult when students, fans and others talk down a defense that has struggled to make tackles, stop the run and needed the team's high-flying offense to bail them out over and over again this year. Well, that may be changing after they held down Virginia Tech in a 38-17 victory on Saturday. ``I'm not going to say we've arrived yet,'' Willard said. ``We've got a lot of work to do, but this is very encouraging.''

There haven't been many encouraging moments in coordinator Brent Venables first season leading the defense. He was hired away from Oklahoma last January when Clemson's defense folded late in the season, giving up nearly 38 points a game its final four contests. The capper was an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl when Clemson's defenders became the face of national jokes.

``It wasn't easy,'' Willard said.

Things hadn't gone that well the first half of this year for Clemson (6-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) on defense, either. The Tigers were last in the ACC against the run and 10th of 12 teams in league points allowed at 37 a game. They gave up 49 points to Florida State and 31 each to Boston College and Georgia Tech its previous three games.

But after a week off, the Tigers showed a fire on defense and made several game changing plays. Linebacker Corico Wright and defensive end Corey Crawford combined to stop Virginia Tech tailback Michael Holmes on fourth-and-1 from Clemson's 18 when a first down might've led to a 14-0 lead for the Hokies. Safety Jonathan Meeks had a pair of second-quarter interceptions off Virginia Tech star quarterback Logan Thomas, the second one which he took 74 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 Clemson lead.

There was another fourth-down stop and an interception in the second half as the Tigers ended with their fewest points allowed against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since, well, Virginia Tech in 38-10 in last December's ACC championship game.

It would be easy to say Clemson's defense has Tech's number - the Tigers have given up a total of 30 points to the Hokies in three Clemson victories the past two season - but Venables hopes the showing means his system's taking hold.

He warned his players Hokies long-time defensive coordinator most likely spent months scheming how to slow down Clemson's offense. ``So they should not expect to get bailed out by the offense and get in some shootout,'' Venables said. ``Hopefully, that didn't fall on deaf ears.''

The defensive effort was crucial since Clemson's typically productive offense struggled to get itself going against the Hokies. Virginia Tech had five sacks on quarterback Tajh Boyd after the Tigers had given up just 10 in their first six games.

Boyd was harassed and pressured just to get the ball off, finishing 12 of 21 for 160 yards after coming in as the ACC's leader at more than 291 yards passing. Still, Boyd accounted for three touchdowns, two rushing and a 37-yard scoring pass to DeAndre Hopkins.

Clemson's defense had its hands full containing Thomas, the Hokies 6-foot-6 star passer. He threw for 207 yards and a touchdown and ran for 99 yards and a 19-yard score. Still, it wasn't enough to keep Virginia Tech (2-2 ACC) from falling to 4-4, its worst mark this late in the season since 1992.

``We did everything we wanted to on offense pretty much the whole game,'' Thomas said. ``I thought we had a great statistical day on offense. We were able to move the ball, but it didn't equate to points because of turnovers. It wasn't that we couldn't score points. It was that we didn't.''

Venables will take it after the way much of the year has gone. The 406 yards Virginia Tech gained were below Clemson's average of 445 yards a game given up this season. Venables knows his players have to build on what they've done.

The Tigers have a short turnaround before playing at Wake Forest (4-3, 2-3) on Thursday night. ``You got to go do it again and do it again, that's what the season's about,'' Venables said. ``The funnest times I've had as a coach is when I've seen great improvement from the beginning of the year until the end.''

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Wizards at Cavs: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

Wizards at Cavs: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Jr. and the Washington Wizards battle LeBron James, George Hill, Larry Nance, Jr. and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night.

Here is all you need to know: TV, live stream and radio info, tip-off time, plus three things to watch:


Where: Quicken Loans Arena
Tip-off: 8 p.m.
TV: TNT (pre- and postgame coverage on NBC Sports Washington Plus)
Live stream: TNTdrama.com
Radio: 1500 AM

Back in action

The Wizards return to the court after a week-long layoff due to the All-Star break. Add in the fact that they had three days off before their last game and this will be just the second game for the Wizards in the last 12 days. What is this, football?

The Wizards will try to overcome the rust to keep their momentum going. They entered the All-Star break having won seven of their last nine games. Though the time off was needed due to a wide array of injuries, the Wizards had a good thing going and will aim to recapture that against a good Cavs team.


Tough stretch

The Wizards come back with a game against the Cavs, a difficult first assignment after such a long layoff. But this is just the beginning of what will be a very difficult part of their schedule. In their next 17 games, the Wizards will play 15 times against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Warriors, Celtics, Spurs and Raptors.

The schedule is tough beyond their opponents. Four times in the next three weeks they will play back-to-back games and they have five games in the next seven nights. Hopefully the players recharged their batteries because it won't be easy.


New-look Cavs

The Wizards and Cavs have played twice this season already and Cleveland took both of those matchups. However, that was all before the trade deadline when the Cavs overhauled their roster. They have won all three of their games since and look rejuvenated with younger players.

Now surrounding LeBron James are a host of new faces like George HIll, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. It will be interesting to see how the Wizards match up with this new group.


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Bradley Beal thoroughly impressed by LeBron James after being his teammate at All-Star Game

Bradley Beal thoroughly impressed by LeBron James after being his teammate at All-Star Game

As a member of the Washington Wizards, Bradley Beal has had many battles with LeBron James over the years, first with the Miami Heat and now with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over the weekend, Beal got to experience having James as a teammate for the first time at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

It was an eye-opening endeavor. Beal got to see up close and personal James' abilities and his routine to maximize them. In a group of the best players on the planet, James stood out.

"It was surreal at first, just being around all the guys," Beal said. "Even just being on his team for two days, that was an unbelievable experience."


Beal, 24, is six seasons in to his NBA career and from experience has learned how to train for the rigors of an 82-game regular season. What James does at 33 years old to stay in peak form, however, is next level.

"To see his preparation, his focus and his mentality and what he does to take care of his body before and after games," Beal said. "That's the true testament to a Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever play the game."

James actually assisted Beal's first points in the All-Star Game, a two-handed dunk in the first quarter. James attacked the rim on a fastbreak to draw attention, then found Beal with a dump-off pass for an easy bucket.


It was an example of James' tricks of the trade. He is not just the most athletic player on the court, he is also the smartest when it comes to the game of basketball.

"His approach and his leadership and everything, it's top notch. It's crazy because you always play against him and to play with him, you get experience the other side of it," Beal said.

Beal, however, did note that much of what he gleaned from James was by watching him. At the end of the day, they are competitors and James isn't going to give away all of his secrets.

"He's not disclosing that information," Beal joked.

The Wizards happen to play James and the Cavs in their first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday night. Once again, Beal will be on the other side.