ACC teams among best defenses in NCAA rankings

Atlantic Coast Conference teams are getting it done with some of the top defenses in the country.

Four league teams rank in the top 11 in FBS total defense this week with Boston College (292.9 yards allowed per game) leading the pack at No. 7 just ahead of Clemson (298.6) at No. 8. Louisville (301.3) and Virginia Tech (302.0) are close behind at 10th and 11th respectively.

All but BC have winning records, are in the Top 25 and have chance to win their respective divisions.

How stingy their defenses play will likely determine how far they go.

"Every week you come in and it's like, 'OK, it's the No. 1 defense, it's the No. 8 defense, it's the No. 10,' " Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said of what he faces each week. "But I don't think our guys would have it any other way. ... As a coach you're like, 'Man, when are you going to get one not ranked in the top 10?' but at the same time, that's what really motivates your guys to perform."

Stout defenses are not new in the ACC. Six teams ranked in the top 20 this time last season and five in the top 15 just last week.

Former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker and current ESPN analyst Jonathan Vilma believes the defensive success is the result of schools finding recruits who can play right away and develop through experience. He also believes the ACC plays a more wide-open style that dictates having versatile athletes.

"You look at how North Carolina and Clemson like to open it up," Vilma said, "so the style of defense is about having athletes can cover men and play good man defense on the outside with slot corners or (linebackers). They're physical at the point, can run sideline to sideline and can cover and/or tight ends."

Continuity also helps.

A key move by first-year Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente was convincing defensive coordinator Bud Foster to stay on staff and help rebuild a unit that ranked 42nd at this point last year.

Opponents have converted less than 25 percent on third down this season against the Hokies, tops in the ACC, and they are second in the league in pass defense efficiency and red zone conversions. Take away a 31-17 loss at Syracuse and they've outscored four recent opponents 174-36, including a 34-3 win at North Carolina.

"Any time you're together that long with a group of guys that you've recruited and really built a defense around what you want to do, you'll be pretty good," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said of Foster's defense.

Yards might be hard to come by Thursday night in Pittsburgh when the Hokies visit to face the Panthers, who rank fifth against the run (96.6 yards).

No matter where teams are ranked, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson expects ACC foes to make it challenging to score points and gain yardage.

"It's getting harder and harder," Johnson said. "It's like I've said all along, this is the best the league has been defensively, I think, from top to bottom. There have been good teams in the past but overall top to bottom, this is the best it's been defensively — at least the teams we've played so far."

The stinginess displayed by Clemson and Louisville has demonstrated there is much more to the Tigers and Cardinals than their respective dynamic quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson.

Practicing against those dual-threat players every day has helped the teams' defenses.

"I think our defensive players understand" the attention on Jackson, said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, whose team has held Duke and North Carolina State to 489 combined yards the past two weeks.

"I tell them every day that we score points because our defense gets turnovers and gets short fields and scores, (along with) our special teams. It's all about the team and when you score points, it's the team that scores points."

But numbers only tell part of the story.

Timely defensive stops have decided several big ACC matchups this season, few bigger than Clemson's overtime interception against N.C. State two weeks ago that sealed a 24-17 win . The Tigers committed four turnovers and had one converted into a touchdown before getting the takeaway that kept them unbeaten.

That game capped a challenging stretch in which Clemson faced Louisville, BC and N.C. State, which ranked 26th at the time. The Tigers return from a bye to face another hurdle Saturday night at No. 12 Florida State, which is 55th defensively nationally but doesn't give ground in Doak Campbell Stadium.

These days, not many ACC teams are giving up much of anything.

Copyright 2016 WCNC


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