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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Nationals players believe extended safety netting is a ‘no-brainer’

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Nationals players believe extended safety netting is a ‘no-brainer’

WASHINGTON -- Visuals can change everything.

It’s happened across sports in different fashion. An issue is discussed or dismissed until a troubling incident is brought to life via video in front of everyone’s eyes.

That breaking point on extended netting arrived for Major League Baseball after Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. pulled a line drive into the stands May 29. The ball struck a four-year-old girl. But, it was Almora’s reaction, as much as anything, which made the reality so stark. He was stunned and moved to tears. The player’s reaction amplified the incident to a level which forced something to be done.

Steps will be taken at Nationals Park to prevent such an incident. The team announced Thursday it will extend the protective netting up the foul line during the All-Star break. It will end just short of the foul poles. Washington has a good window to complete the work because it goes on the road following the All-Star break. The Nationals’ final pre-break home game is July 7. They don’t return to Nationals Park until July 22.

“As players, it's something that we've pushed for and advocated for years now,” Sean Doolittle said. “I think as you see exit velocities that have continued to increase and these new stadiums that are bringing fans closer and closer to the action, you're seeing balls go into the stands at really, really high speeds. It's really scary. Max broke his nose the other day on a BP pitch that was probably 50 mph and these balls are going into the seats over 100 mph.

“So, I think, hopefully, It's a way to keep fans safe while bringing them closer to the action. As somebody that watches the vast majority of games from behind a screen or chain-linked fence, I can promise you get used to it really, really quickly. It doesn't hinder your view at all. You think the most expensive seats in the stands, they're right behind home plate. People look through a net. I promise you-you can still see the game and after five minutes you don't even notice that it's there.”

Ryan Zimmerman called it a “no-brainer.” Trea Turner wants fans to be paying more attention, in addition to the netting.

“You only have to pay attention to small snippets of the game,” Turner told NBC Sports Washington. “I just want people to pay attention. You can’t block everybody off from a foul pop that goes over the net, that can still hit people. You’re not going to foolproof it.”

Netting in Nationals Park will be thinner than the current netting, according to the team. It will also have sections which can be raised pregame in order to allow players to interact with fans.

The Almora incident was referenced in a letter from Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner announcing the extension. The Nationals were also witnesses to an Eloy Jiménez foul ball in Chicago which struck a young fan in Chicago on June 11.

“Jiménez hit a line drive really hard foul and I saw a girl looking towards me -- I don’t know what she was looking at but was kind of looking in the outfield direction, hit her in the side of the face,” Turner said. “I heard it hit her. What sticks in my head is when I heard the ball hit her. Not good.”

Washington becomes the second team to announce a planned extension. The White Sox were the first.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in Seattle on June 5 he didn’t expect league-wide changes in netting this season. Manfred cited a range of reasons from ballpark framework to fan objections. In 2015, the commissioner’s office recommended teams extend netting to the end of the dugouts. Three years later, that task was completed. The next steps have slowly begun.


Women's World Cup 2019: Round of 16 bracket is set as USA soccer readies for knockout round


Women's World Cup 2019: Round of 16 bracket is set as USA soccer readies for knockout round

LE HAVRE, France (AP) -- The defending champion U.S. national team faced its toughest test of the Women's World Cup and remained dominant Thursday night, beating Sweden 2-0 to serve up a measure of revenge against the team that stunned the confident Americans in the last Olympics.

Lindsey Horan scored within the first three minutes, the fastest goal of this tournament. The United States went up 2-0 on an own goal by Jonna Andersson in the 50th minute that gave the Americans a tournament-record 18 goals in the group stage. The U.S. did not concede a goal in its first three matches.

Already assured a spot in the round of 16 before the game, the United States finished atop of group F and will head to Reims to face Spain on Monday, June 24th. Sweden will play Group E runners-up Canada in Paris. The U.S. currently has 9 points 

The meeting was the first tournament game between the two teams since the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics. The Swedes bunkered in on defense and advanced on penalties after a 1-1 draw, handing the United States its earliest-ever exit from the Olympic tournament. Former U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo called the Swedes "cowards" for the defensive stand.

Round-of-16 Schedule

Saturday, June 22

Germany vs. Nigeria, 11:30 a.m. ET

Norway vs. Australia, 3:00 p.m. ET

Sunday, June 23

England vs. Cameroon, 11:30 a.m. ET

France vs. Brazil, 3:00 p.m. ET

Monday, June 24

Spain vs. United States, Noon ET

Sweden vs. Canada, 3:00 p.m. ET

Tuesday, June 25

Italy vs. China, Noon ET

Netherlands vs Japan, 3:00 p.m. ET


Thursday, June 27 

TBD vs, TBD, 3:00 p.m. ET

Friday, June 28

TBD vs TBD, 3:00 p.m. ET

Saturday, June 29

TBD vs TBD, 9:00 a.m. ET

TBD vs TBD, 12:30 p.m. ET


Tuesday, July 2

TBD vs TBD, 3:00 p.m. ET 

Wednesday, July 3

TBD vs TBD, 3:00 p.m. ET

Third-place game

Saturday, July 6 

TBD vs TBD, 11:00 a.m. ET


Sunday, July 7

TBD vs TBD, 11:00 a.m. ET