ATLANTA — Statistically, it was Derrick Morgan’s best game of the year.
Just check his line: 10 tackles, three sacks and four tackles for loss.
The numbers were good enough that Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney acknowledged that he voted for the junior defensive end to receive one of college football’s highest honors.
“I voted him for All-American. I mean, he’s outstanding,” Swinney said, reflecting earlier this week on Morgan’s dominant performance against his offense in September.
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On the warm fall night in Atlanta, Morgan was a constant in Clemson’s backfield, helping disrupt passes and keeping the Tigers’ ever-elusive ballcarriers in check.
As the Yellow Jackets held Heisman hopeful running back C.J. Spiller to 87 yards on 20 carries — more than half of those yards came in the second half — the game was a coming out party of sorts for Morgan. Although opposing coaches have long understood just how good he is — several this season called him the best player on last year’s widely heralded Georgia Tech defensive line — his name recognition only grew against the Tigers in the nationally televised game.
“I really just had a better opportunity to get some one-on-ones with the tackles (playing well) and it was a whole group effort as far as the defensive line stepping up and carrying our weight,” Morgan said. “That’s what led to a great deal of our success that night.”
The Yellow Jackets went on to win 30-27 on a game-winning field goal from place-kicker Scott Blair.
On Saturday, the two teams will battle once again in the ACC championship. With a win, the No. 12 Yellow Jackets have an opportunity to head to the BCS Orange Bowl on Jan. 5 in Miami.
“He’s a relentless player,” Clemson offensive lineman Thomas Austin said. “He makes a lot of plays running guys down on the back side.”
Morgan’s non-stop, hustling play became so noteworthy to the Tigers that they began altering their schemes to jam him at the point of attack. Some of that meant double- and triple-teaming at the line of scrimmage.
“He has a tremendous burst off the ball, and he’s also very powerful,” Austin said. “So it’s a unique combination of a speed-rusher on the outside, but he’s also got a great bull-rush, as well.”
A potential first-rounder in April’s NFL draft, Morgan has seen opposing offensive lines throw a slew of techniques his way to slow him down. Many of those Clemson is forced to try to use, Swinney said.
“You’ve got to slide the protection to him. You’ve got to chip him with a tight end. You’ve got to play-action him. You’ve got to cut him with the back,” Swinney said. “There’s different things that you have to do to try to keep him from getting into a rhythm. If you just go in and have one thought, he’s going to have a big night on you.”
Much like Clemson’s versatile running back/kick returner, Spiller, Morgan presents a game-changing, plan-altering challenge for the Tigers, Swinney added.
“He’s a hard guy just to take out the game, kind of like C.J,” Swinney said. “He’s probably going to make some plays along the way, but you just hope to minimize it as much as possible.”