ATLANTA — Clemson’s offense set the tone of the game against Georgia Tech on Thursday night, and did so against an opponent who couldn’t afford to fall behind.
The third-ranked Tigers jumped out to an early double-digit lead in an eventual 26-7 win against the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium, quieting the home crowd while putting the home team and its triple-option offense in an uncomfortable position.
Clemson (4-0, 1-0 ACC) scored touchdowns on two of its first three possessions to claim a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter, and could have had more points if not for a missed field goal on the second series.
Still, Clemson’s lead took Georgia Tech (3-1, 1-1) out of its element. Georgia Tech’s ball-control offense isn’t conducive to quick scores, and therefore has a difficult time overcoming bigger deficits.
Thus, after falling behind, the Yellow Jackets didn’t have the luxury of playing their style of offense, milking the clock and keeping the ball away from Clemson like they would have liked.
“When you can control the ball like we did and get that amount of first downs against this type of team,” Swinney said after the game, “you’re making hay because they’re not really built to run a two-minute offense.”
Clemson received the opening kickoff and marched down the field to open the scoring. A 4-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Mike Williams capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 3:35. It was Williams’ first score since Clemson’s opening possession of the 2015 season, when he suffered a neck injury that forced him to miss the rest of the year.
Greg Huegel was wide right on a 27-yard field goal attempt on Clemson’s next possession, but the Tigers punched the ball in again on their third series. Wayne Gallman concluded an eight-play, 62-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone that gave Clemson a 14-point lead at the 2:26 mark of the first frame.
Overall, Clemson’s offense ran 56 plays in the first half — more than Georgia Tech ran the entire game — for 347 yards and 23 points.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said the fast start offensively was not only important against a team like Georgia Tech, but good for Clemson’s psyche, as well.
“It’s always important for us to set the tone right out of the gate,” Watson said. “It sets up just not for the offense, but for the defense to get fired up. It’s all about us. Once we set the tone and get that momentum, it’s hard to beat us.”
Clemson finished the game with 442 yards of total offense and 24 first downs.
Watson completed 32 of 48 passes for a season-high 304 yards and a pair of touchdowns in what was his best performance of the season thus far. The junior from Gainesville, Ga., was sharp for the most part all night in a happy homecoming performance.
It was Watson’s first game back at Bobby Dodd Stadium since tearing his ACL there in 2014.
“I love having No. 4 on my team,” Elliott said. “We all know he’s a great player, and it was good for him to come home. This was a big night for him, too. I’m sure there was some emotions he had to overcome to come out and lead his team to victory.”
Watson threw an interception late in the first half, though it wasn’t his fault. Williams ran the wrong route, Watson threw the ball to another area of the field and the defender picked off the pass.
As good as the offense looked at times, it left several touchdowns on the field. Watson overthrew a couple of wide-open receivers down the field, Deon Cain dropped a ball in the end zone and Clemson’s offensive line couldn’t protect Watson on a couple of occasions when there were opportunities for potential touchdowns.
“Had a couple miscues on some easy plays,” Swinney said. “We had a couple little miscues that have to clean up.”
While Clemson’s offense started the game in strong fashion, it couldn’t get much going after halftime. The Tigers recorded just 95 yards on six second-half possessions.
Georgia Tech held the ball for 11:49 in the third quarter, and it was a big reason Clemson couldn’t develop a rhythm.
Clemson’s coaching staff also took a conservative approach with the game in hand and the defense dominating the way it was.
“We wanted to make some calls to try and stay on the field,” Elliott said, “but at the same time not push the envelope too much and give them good field position and a cheap score.”
Ray-Ray McCloud led Clemson’s receiving corps with eight catches for a career-high 101 yards. It was the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, and the eight receptions matched a previous personal best.
After entering the game with just one catch, Jordan Leggett caught four passes in the first half, including his first touchdown of the season on a 9-yard pass from Watson that made the score 23-0 at the half.
Most importantly, Clemson got the win to improve to 4-0, snapping its five-game losing streak against Georgia Tech in Atlanta dating to 2003.
“This is a place we haven’t won at very much, so mission accomplished,” Swinney said. “I’m really happy to get out of here with a W. Last time we won here, my son was just born — Clay had a bottle in his mouth.
“So, it’s been long enough.”
— Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports