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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John Carlson once again an All-Star snub


John Carlson once again an All-Star snub

The Capitals' Stanley Cup run may be even more remarkable than we thought considering there were zero all-stars on Washington's roster apparently.

As part of Wednesday's NHL Awards, the First and Second-Team All-Star rosters were released and not a single Capital made either team.

Here is a look at both teams:

In the interest of full disclosure, the All-Star Teams are voted on by members of the Pro Hockey Writers Association of which I am a member. I did not, however, have a vote for the All-Star rosters.

The first thought most Caps fans will have when looking at these teams is what about Alex Ovechkin?

I'm actually OK with Taylor Hall and Claude Giroux getting the nods at left wing.

Hall won the Hart Trophy for what he was able to accomplish in New Jersey in leading a team that looked like a trash heap before the season to a playoff berth. Compare the Devils' roster to the Caps' and there's no question Hall had a lot less to work with than Ovechkin and tallied 93 points as compared to Ovechkin's 87. Giroux finished second in the NHL with 102 points, one of only three players this season to finish in the triple digits. He very narrowly beat out Ovechkin for Second Team honors.

It was a coin flip and Ovechkin lost. That's not what Caps fans should be crying foul over. The fact that John Carlson was not among the four defensive all-stars is a far more egregious omission for which there is no excuse.

After inexplicably being excluded from the NHL All-Star Game in January, Carlson was snubbed once again as he came in fifth in the voting.

Just what does Carlson have to do to get some recognition?

No defenseman in the entire NHL had more points than Carlson's 68 this season. That's not just because of increased minutes as Carlson finished 13th among defensemen in ice time per game.

But being a good defenseman is not about the offensive stats.

That's right. Now go ahead and show me which of the four who finished ahead of Carlson was partnered with a rookie for most of the season. I'll wait.

The answer is none of them.

It's very easy now to look at the Capitals as a team that had all the pieces in place and managed to put it all together at the right time to go on a Cup run, but that's not what happened this season. Carlson was very heavily relied upon by the Capitals during the regular season when the blue line was an obvious weakness, especially after an injury forced Matt Niskanen out of the lineup for 14 games. Carlson was averaging nearly 30 minutes per game in Niskanen's absence. Carlson also spent the majority of the season with his primary partner being a rookie in Christian Djoos.

Charlie McAvoy was a rookie too. Does that mean Zdeno Chara should have been named an all-star?

A player like McAvoy is very much the exception, not the rule. Djoos has a bright future ahead of him, but his career is not yet at the same level as a player like McAvoy.

With all due respect to the voters, it seems like not enough attention was paid to what the Capitals asked of Carlson this season. His strong play on both ends of the ice made up for a weak defense that was only bolstered by a late trade for Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks just prior to the trade deadline.

If you looked at Carlson's stats and saw just an offensive specialist who was not strong enough in his own end to warrant an all-star spot, then you were not paying close enough attention to the role he played in Washington this season.


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Orioles weather long rain delay in 3-0 win over Nationals

Orioles weather long rain delay in 3-0 win over Nationals

WASHINGTON -- The rain was heavy and relentless. As the puddles grew deeper on the tarp at Nationals Park, the Baltimore Orioles were left to wonder if their bid for a rare road victory would be thwarted by, of all things, the weather.

During a season in which very little has worked in their favor, the Orioles withstood a long rain delay to beat the Washington Nationals 3-0 Wednesday night.

Baltimore led 2-0 after four innings when play was stopped. After a wait of 2 hours, 43 minutes, the game resumed with a few hundred fans from the announced crowd of 32,153 sprinkled around the lower seating bowl.

Mark Trumbo homered for Baltimore, and Andrew Cashner and four relievers combined on a five-hitter in a game that ended long after midnight.

"It was nice," Trumbo said. "I'm glad that we actually kept the game going. Had we not been able to, it might have been a wash. But it ended up being pretty big for us."

Baltimore ended a six-game losing streak to Washington that began last May, won for only the fourth time in 20 games and improved the majors' worst road record to 10-28.

This one was worth the wait.

"It's never easy, especially when you get over the hour mark, two-hour mark," Trumbo said. "Then you have to restart. It's almost two games in one, so, great job by our guys tonight."

The Nationals managed only two hits following the delay, both in the ninth inning.

"It happens. You can't do anything about the rain," manager Dave Martinez said. "You've got to come out and get yourself ready to play. I'm not going to make any excuses."

The rain delay cut short a solid pitching performance by Cashner, who allowed three hits and no walks over four innings in his return from an 11-day stay on the disabled list with back spasms.

Miguel Castro (2-2) followed with two hitless innings, Darren O'Day pitched a perfect seventh and Zach Britton got four outs.

Brad Brach allowed the Nationals to load the bases with two outs in the ninth before striking out Mark Reynolds .

Trumbo hit a two-run homer in the second inning off Gio Gonzalez (6-4), and for a while it appeared the drive would be washed out by the rain.

"One pitch. That was the whole game," Gonzalez lamented. "That was it."

Indeed, it all ended well for the Orioles, who added a run in the sixth when Adam Jones doubled off Shawn Kelley and scored on a sacrifice fly by Danny Valencia .