ATLANTA — Soon after watching the way Clemson’s defensive line contained one of his best players on a warm September night, Paul Johnson was sold.
To him, that line was good.
And if he needed any more convincing of just how strong he believed the Tigers’ hefty front-four could play, he got an answer a week later when they held Boston College to 54 total yards of offense.
“I do not know if any of you guys caught Clemson’s stats against Boston College but they gave up 54 yards and four first downs for the game,” the Georgia Tech head coach said during his weekly news conference Sept. 22. “Let’s give Clemson a little credit; they are pretty good.”
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From that moment forward, Johnson became a sort of unofficial pitch-man for the unit, telling every one who would listen that the tandem was among the best in the country.
On Sunday, he repeated that refrain.
“They’re the best group we’ve played hands down,” Johnson said on the ACC championship games’s coaches teleconference.
This Saturday, his spread option offense will be charged with facing the group once again when the Yellow Jackets and Tigers battle for the ACC crown in Tampa, Fla. The winning team goes to Miami on Jan. 5 for the Orange Bowl.
But if there is any stumbling block — aside from the ever versatile, elusive running back and kick returner C.J. Spiller — along Clemson’s roster that could impede No. 12 Georgia Tech’s progress of reaching that game, it could come in the form of Clemson’s front-line defenders.
“Just from watching them all season, those are guys that have a lot of talent, and they’re really relentless in chasing the ball down,” Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan said.
The group includes a pair of 300-pound-plus tackles on the interior and two ends who teammate DeAndre McDaniel believes need no introduction.
“Our D-tackles, those two guys are real big and they’re very comfortable. They both want to learn the game and they work real hard to be the best,” the junior safety said. “Our D-ends, their names speak for themselves. Ricky Sapp and Da’Quan (Bowers), those two guys are just great.”
For the season, Sapp and Bowers have a combined 24 tackles for loss and 27 quarterback hurries. Quick and physical, they tend to wreak havoc once they get into opposing backfields.
While Georgia Tech’s exterior ground game — its pitches and option runs to the edges — worked well for most of the Yellow Jackets’ 30-27 win over Clemson, the inside dives were less successful. Much of that was due to the performance of Sapp, Bowers and tackles Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson.
As A-back Anthony Allen thrived running around the ends for 127 yards and a touchdown on just five carries, last year’s ACC player of the year, B-back Jonathan Dwyer was held out of the end zone and to just 66 yards on 18 carries.
“They’ve got several guys (on the defensive line) and they roll them,” Johnson said. “They could almost go two-deep.”
For Dwyer, the unit marks a striking resemblance to another that recently held him to his second-lowest rushing total of the season.
“They’re just as talented as (Georgia),” said Dwyer, who rushed for just 33 yards in Saturday’s 30-24 loss to Georgia Tech’s in-state rival. “They’re pretty much similar.”