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Defense Helps Clemson Add to 10-Win Streak

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb recaps another dominant performance from Clemson's defense.

The 2021 Clemson football team won’t be remembered as a champion like so many other Tigers’ squads under Dabo Swinney. However, even after losing both coordinators, Clemson played like a championship title was on the line in the Cheez-It Bowl on Wednesday.

In actuality, a championship wasn’t on the line. But Clemson’s streak of 10-win seasons was, and thanks to the Tigers defense, Clemson defeated Iowa State, 20-13, to reach double digits in victories for the 11th straight season.

As it has for much of the season, Clemson’s defense shined, holding the Cyclones to 270 yards and 4.5 yards per play. Iowa State didn’t score its first touchdown until the 9:42 mark of the fourth quarter.

Before that score, Clemson’s defense had its own touchdown with senior cornerback Mario Goodrich recording an 18-yard pick-six in the third quarter. Goodrich’s big interception came two plays after Will Shipley posted a 12-yard touchdown run and gave the Tigers a 17-point lead.

The last time Clemson lost a game in which it led at any point by 17 points was 2010. That streak continued Wednesday too, and Goodrich was a big reason why. Not only did he return an interception for a touchdown, Goodrich forced a fumble on a pivotal fourth-down play for Iowa State. The Cyclones recovered the fumble, but it still ended any hope of a comeback.

With 33 seconds remaining in regulation, Iowa State needed two yards on fourth down to continue its last-minute drive. Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy scrambled passed the first-down line on the play, but Goodrich sent the ball backwards with a forced fumble. Purdy recovered the loose ball, but behind the line to gain, turning the result of the play into a failed conversion.

In 46 previous college games, Goodrich had never recorded an interception and forced fumble in the same contest. Before Wednesday, Goodrich also never returned an interception for a touchdown in his college career.

An offense doesn’t have to do much when its defense holds the opposition to under 300 yards and scores a touchdown. It’s a good thing that’s the case for Clemson, as the Tigers didn’t have many more yards (315) than Iowa State and settled for field-goal attempts twice in the red zone.

With a 17-point lead late in the third quarter, DJ Uiagalelei threw an interception deep in Clemson territory. But the Tigers defense stood tall again, not allowing Iowa State to even gain a yard on the ensuing possession, and the Cyclones kicked a field goal.

Uiagalelei finished 21 of 32 with 187 passing yards with the interception. Will Shipley rushed for 61 yards, averaging 3.4 yards per carry, and scored Clemson’s only offensive touchdown.

While the defensive effort yielded a bowl of Cheez-Its rather than another championship banner, this was an important win for Clemson. With its 11th consecutive 10-win season, the Tigers have the third-longest 10-win campaigns streak in FBS history.

With Wednesday’s victory, Dabo Swinney also recorded his 150th win. He was just the third coach to reach that mark in his first 15 FBS seasons.

Not only that, though, this matchup was key for Clemson’s psyche heading into a pivotal offseason. Clemson hasn’t had to replace either of its coordinators since 2014 and must now replace both former offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

The offense remains a work in progress, but in the first matchup without Venables, new defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin called a great game. The unit looked inspired and played well despite this being the end of an overall disappointing season.

As disappointing as it may be, though, the 2021 campaign ended with 10 more wins for Clemson. The Tigers finished the season on a six-game winning streak and winners in eight of nine after starting 2-2.

If the debut of the new Clemson coordinators means anything, there are more 10-win seasons on the horizon for the Tigers.