CLEMSON - The crowd rose and so did the noise level in Death Valley. No. 1 Clemson faced fourth-and-goal from the 2 with 10 seconds left in regulation against Texas A&M.
It felt like a pivotal moment, even if it wasn't.
Kellen Mond made a quick throw to wide-open tight end Jalen Wydermyer in the end zone to give the Aggies their first and only touchdown in 24-10 loss in which they were mostly manhandled by the defending national champions.
"I think that was our only bust," said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables with a smile that made clear the Tigers wanted that no-touchdowns-allowed game as much as their fans.
During Clemson's rise to college football royalty over the last decade under Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have been one of the few programs in the age of offense to consistently produce top-level defenses. Clemson keeps sending players to the NFL. Especially pass rushers. The next wave steps up, and the beat goes on.
The constant is Venables, now in his eighth season as Swinney's top lieutenant. The high-energy and highly compensated assistant coach who has his own get-back guy to keep him from drifting off the sideline has directed a top-25 defense every season since 2013. Clemson has been top five in the nation in yards allowed per play in four of the last five seasons.
"He's as good as it gets," Swinney said Saturday night. "He's passionate about it, he loves what he does. He loves it. And the guys love working with him. Players love playing for him."
The task for Venables, or Coach V, this season was to replace four starting defensive linemen who were drafted by the NFL in April, including three first-rounders. There is still big-time talent up front, but depth, experience and leadership is in development. The back end of the defense is more settled, with veterans to lean upon such as safeties Tanner Muse, K'Von Wallace, Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner.
Against Texas A&M, Clemson played lots of six-defensive back formations. Swinney said Venables used six personnel packages against Texas A&M as compared to just two for Georgia Tech in the opener.
With Christian Wilkins, Clellin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant leading the way last year, Clemson could rely on a dominant defensive line to solve most any problem.
"With our personnel, we need to have multiple answers," Swinney said.
"It's not easy. They throw a lot at us. But it's part of the challenge," said Turner, who bounced back from an early missed tackle against A&M to have a solid game. "The guy's a genius. Always coming up with crazy stuff."
Venables sees his job as making the complicated simple.
"Your schemes are no good if the fundamentals and technique stink," he said.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said opponents are lucky to only have to go up against Venables once a season while he has to do it three times a week. Tony Elliott, Clemson's lead play-caller on offense, said not having to go against those Power Rangers, as Wilkins and crew dubbed themselves, has been little relief.
"It doesn't look or feel much different to me. You're seeing those young d-linemen growing up," Elliott said. "And then you see Brent's ability to find schematically what the weakness of an offense is. He's going to challenge us from a protection standpoint. He's going to challenge us in the run game with the different fronts and stunts and pressures that he gives us."
Venables, who was hired away from Oklahoma after the 2011 season, is one of three defensive coordinators to earn more than $2 million last year. There have been opportunities for him to become a head coach, but the fit at Clemson, and the salary, have given him no reason to leave a job he might do better than anybody in major college football.
A year after Mond passed for 430 yards against Clemson in College Station, the Tigers held the Aggies 4.2 yards per play Saturday. Through three quarters, Clemson led 24-3 and Mond had thrown for 115 yards against Clemson's reloaded defense.
"We're not a polished product. We'll go out there and want to throw up at times watching tape I'm sure," Venables said. "We've seen some growth and part of that growth, too, is just confidence. 'I can do it. This isn't that hard. If I just go stance, alignment, assignment, key. Stance, alignment, assignment, key. And just have the focus and the discipline to do that play after play all the plays come to me. I don't have to try to make plays.'"
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