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Goodbye Coach Vic, hello Coach Steele

Posted by cuorange on August 17, 2009

Kevin Steele

Kevin Steele

Clemson fans were split on Dabo Swinney’s decision to not retain defensive coordinator Vic Koenning last December.  Those in Vic’s corner, myself included, typically pointed to statistics (18th in total defense, 13th in scoring defense) to argue that defense wasn’t the problem.

Detractors, pointed to games lost in the 2nd half when the Tigers had stymied teams in the first half, leaving the appearance that the opponent made halftime adjustments while Koenning was unable or unwilling to.

There appears to be something to this as the Tigers D gave up 92 points in the first half (a 7.1 average) and 123 in the second half (a 10.2 average).

There was also a belief that Koenning’s soft defense became even softer in crunch time, afraid to give up the big play.  The lack of sacks was gasoline on the fire.

2008 Clemson Defensive Rankings

Scoring Defense Total Defense Rushing Defense Pass Defense Pass Efficiency Defense Turnovers Gained Sacks 3rd Down Defense
13 18 36 12 10 28 108 46

To be sure, part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the offense.  At times the defense stopped opponents time after time only to have the offense give up field position or a turnover and leave Koenning’s troops in precarious positions and in several cases eventually gave up the losing score.
With this in mind, I decided to take a look at the losses last year that fit the above scenario and come to some conclusion in my mind of whether this was the right decision or not.
On September 27, 2008 Clemson dominated Maryland in the first half and led 17-6 heading into the third quarter.  After an exchange of punts Maryland used Darius Heyward-Bey on a reverse that went 76 yards to the Clemson 4.  The Terps scored two plays later to make the score 17-13 with 8:34 to go in the 3rd quarter.
The next 5 drives (3 by Clemson, 2 by Maryland) ended in punts.  After a short punt by Jimmy Maners and a 9 yard return Maryland began a drive at the Clemson 45 with 13:16 to go in the 4th quarter.  Seven plays later, and facing only 1 third down, the Terps scored the go ahead touchdown.
The Tigers eventually drove to the Maryland 41 where they faced a 4th and one and were unable to convert.  From there the Tiger defense was unable to stop the Terps and Maryland was able to run out the last 5:36 of the game.
After giving up 167 yards and two FGs in the first half, the Tigers defense was gashed for 205 yards and 14 points in the second half.
Twelve days later on October 9, the Tigers entered the 4th quarter in Winston-Salem, NC with a 7-3 lead.
A Cullen Harper interception was returned to the Clemson 16 and led to a Wake field goal that made the score 7-6 with 12:57 remaining.
After a Clemson punt Wake started at their 22 with 10:33 to go.  Two negative rushing plays and a penalty left Wake facing a 3rd and 24 at their own 8.  What happened next sealed at least two people’s fate: Tommy Bowden and Vic Koenning.  Riley Skinner completed a 28 yard pass to D.J. Boldin for a 1st down at the Wake 36.  Wake moved down the field, converting two third downs on their way to completing a 15-play 78 yard touchdown drive and a 12-7 victory.
Nine days later on October 18th Clemson led Georgia Tech 17-14 in Swinney’s first game as head coach.  With 10:17 to go the Yellow Jackets started at their own 40.  Nine plays later, with a missed coverage along the way, Georgia Tech had a 21-17 lead and ultimately a victory by the same score.
Koenning wasn’t coaching on January 1 in the Gator Bowl, but his scheme was there.  After leading 14-3 at the half and 21-10 in the 3rd quarter the Tigers gave up 16 points and 185 yards in the last 25 minutes of a 26-21 loss.
There is plenty of blame to go around, not all of it is Koenning’s.  However, there is a general perception among football fans that once given a lead, especially in the 2nd half, the defense should be able to hold that lead. 
If all of these leads had been held the Tigers could have been looking at a 11-2 season and perhaps an ACC Championship (or at least play for one).  Instead the record was 7-6, the head coach and defensive coordinator were fired.
While I am a big believer in statistics in most cases, looking at the statistics of last years Clemson defense in a vacuum is extremely misleading.  I believe Dabo made the right call in regards to Koenning. 
If you read this blog consistently you know that I believe the most important aspect of a championship team is their defense, specifically being a top 10 unit in scoring defense and total defense.  Koenning’s defense were close to achieving these goals, but without being able to stop teams in crunch time these statistics mean little.
Kevin Steele’s philosophy is different than Koenning’s when it comes to attacking the offense.  As a result I expect to see the Tigers give up more big plays in 2009.  I also expect them to create more sacks and put more pressure on the offenses of the ACC.  In a league without a truly dominant offense that could make the difference between 11-2 and 7-6.


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