After what happened against Georgia Tech in Atlanta two years ago, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had a simple initiative heading into Thursday night’s game.
“I didn’t get to finish the last game when we came down here two years ago,” Watson said, “so that’s what I wanted to do — finish it and get the W.”
He did that, and more. In his first game back at Bobby Dodd Stadium since tearing his ACL in 2014, Watson threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns to lead No. 3 Clemson to a 26-7 win at Georgia Tech, which snapped the Yellow Jackets’ five-game home winning streak against the Tigers dating to 2003.
“I love having No. 4 on my team,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said of Watson after the game. “This was a big night for him. I’m sure there was some emotions he had to overcome to come out and lead his team to victory.”
It was a happy homecoming for Watson, too. It was the third time in Watson’s career that he returned to his home state of Georgia to play in a game, and the first time he left with a win.
“It’s always good to come back home to your home state and see fans in the stands,” Watson said.
Watson’s 304 yards in the contest marked a season high. Though the junior missed a couple of throws on deep balls that could have resulted in touchdowns, he was consistently sharp throughout the night in what was his best performance of the season to date.
Watson was intercepted late in the second quarter, but wasn’t at fault. Mike Williams ran the wrong route on the play, and the miscommunication led to the pick.
Overall, Watson completed 32-of-48 passes (66.7 percent), his most completions in a game since November of last year at Syracuse.
“He looks like he’s comfortable,” Elliott said. “You’re starting to see that body language of a true leader, coming down the sideline and encouraging his guys. I did notice some of that in between series. So, he looks comfortable, he understands, he prepares like a pro and he was very dialed in on the nuances of this defense on a short week. You have to give him credit.”
After amassing an impressive 347 yards, 19 first downs and 23 points in the first half, Clemson’s offense totaled just 95 yards, five first downs and three points in the second half.
A lot of that had to do with the play count. After running 56 plays in the first half, Clemson ran just 26 over the last two quarters.
Georgia Tech and its triple-option offense controlled the ball and clock in the second half. Clemson had only two possessions in the third quarter, making it hard to develop a rhythm.
And by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Tigers decided it was in their best interest to play conservative instead of force the issue and potentially give the Yellow Jackets some momentum.
“We took our foot off the gas in the second half, but then again, we only two series in the third quarter,” Watson said. “They had the ball pretty much the whole third quarter, and then the fourth quarter, we just wanted to run out the clock and get out of there with the W. There was no point to press or try to score anymore.”
All in all, Clemson’s performance on offense against Georgia Tech was much needed following a few weeks of struggles and inconsistencies on that side of the ball.
Watson feels the unit is beginning to hit its stride, and it couldn’t come at a better time than now, with a mammoth matchup against fourth-ranked Louisville looming next weekend.
“It’s a big one,” Watson said of the upcoming game in Death Valley. “But honestly, my mind isn’t even on that game. Right now I’m going to celebrate with my teammates, family and friends, get some rest this weekend and on Monday, that’s when I’ll turn my focus to them.”