By Will Vandervort
On a night when Clemson was honoring one of its all-time greatest head coaches, Clemson and Georgia played in a game that was reminiscent of those great Clemson-Georgia games of the 1980s, when Danny Ford, who was inducted into the Clemson Ring of Honor Saturday night, walked the sidelines of Death Valley.
Four times the Tigers and the Bulldogs drew to a tie, and like the old days it came down to a special teams play to decide the outcome. A muffed snap on an easy field goal attempt late in the third quarter proved to be the difference as No. 8 Clemson knocked off fifth-ranked Georgia, 38-35, in front of 83,830 people.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd threw for 270 yards and accounted for all five touchdowns. The Tigers became the first non-SEC team in history to beat two SEC top 10 teams in back-to-back games. Clemson ended last season with a win over then No. 7 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“I think it was a good win,” Boyd said. “It was nothing that we did not expect as a program, but I think it turned a lot of heads in the college football world. It was a monumental win for this program, this university and for the conference in general.
“I think we are the only non-conference team to beat two top 10 SEC teams in a row. All of that stuff is great, but we have to continue to keep our eyes on the prize. This is only the opener. We still have 11 games left so we have to continue to keep working.”
It may have just been an opener, but what an opener it was. Clemson amassed 467 total yards, including 197 on the ground. Georgia had 545 yards and had got 155 yards and two touchdowns from Todd Gurley.
Clemson also got 132 rushing yards from Roderick McDowell and six catches and 127 yards from Sammy Watkins. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray threw for 323 yards on 20-29 passing.
“I took this game in two different ways,” Boyd said. “Either it was going to be a tight game all the way around or it wasn’t going to be as close as people think it was. It was a little tight throughout the game, but that’s what we play for.
“This team is a veteran team and we have been in every situation you can imagine. We have been down 18, we have been up and lost and we have been absolutely blown out. It’s in these situations where you know what type of team you have and players you have surrounding you.”
One of those situations came late in the game. With the Tigers (1-0) clinging to a 31-28 lead, Boyd rolled to his right and found tight end Stanton Seckinger along the sideline on a third down play from the nine. The sophomore dove for the pylon and got in the end zone, but the line judge ruled he stepped out of bounds at the two-yard line.
But the replay official overturned the ruling on the field when it was apparent on the replay that Seckinger did not step out of bounds.
“I don’t know why that was even reviewed. I knew it was a touchdown right way. I just started walking over to the sideline,” Boyd said.
The nine-yard scoring playing gave Clemson a 38-28 lead with 7:40 to play.
Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who rushed for 154 yards and two scores, broke off a 22-yard run and looked to be going all the way when safety Robert Smith made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Georgia 47. The Bulldogs ended up punting the ball and Clemson’s offense was able to run the clock down to 2:25 before Georgia got the ball back.
On third and three from his own 16, Boyd ran for six yards, while breaking a tackle and diving forward to make sure he had enough yards.
“That’s Tajh Boyd,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “He wants the ball. He knew we were going to him the whole time and he stuck his head down and went and got that first down.”
That first down turned out to be big, because when Georgia finally did get the ball back, Murray led a fast 64-yard scoring drive to cut the Tigers’ 38-28 lead to three points with 1:19 to play. Martavis Bryant secured the ensuing onside kick sending Boyd and the offense into the victory formation.
“This was a great win. This was a gutsy win,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “The character and toughness that our guys showed tonight was something special.”
Boyd ran three yards for a touchdown with 3:51 to play before halftime as the two teams battled to a 21-21 tie in the first half.
Boyd accounted for all three Clemson touchdowns, including a 77-yard touchdown pass to Watkins. He also had a four-yard scoring run.
After a slow start, the Clemson defense bounced back to stop Georgia on its last five possessions, while also forcing a fumble and an interception. The Tigers also had three sacks.
After each team got the butterflies out, the offenses exploded when on Clemson’s second possession of the game. Boyd guided the Tigers on a nine-play, 76-yard drive that he capped with a four-yard run with 9:29 to play in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
Boyd hit Watkins for 14 yards on third down to keep the drive alive and then found Charone Peake for 25 yards to set up his four-yard score.
The Bulldogs needed 12 seconds to even things up when Gurley took a pitch sweep to the right and darted 75 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. It was the longest touchdown run of his career.
Clemson did not take long to get back the lead. On the first play of the drive, Boyd hit Watkins on a slant around his own 40 and then broke one tackle and raced the rest of the way to complete the 77-yard touchdown. Like Gurley’s run, the play took 12 seconds.
Murray led Georgia back on its next possession. This time the Bulldogs needed 11 plays though as the Georgia quarterback convert a third down conversion and fourth down play to set up Keith Marshall’s four-yard, which tied the game at 14-14 with 4:12 left in the first quarter.
Georgia took its first lead of the night the next time it got the ball as Murray hit Rantavious Wooten for a 34-yard pass to the one. Fullback Quayvon Hicks, who had a 37-yard run earlier in the drive, capped it with a one-yard plunge for a 21-14 lead.
The offense finally began to fade in the second quarter as the Tigers failed to get anything going and though Georgia had chances to extend its lead, Clemson’s defense start to step. The Tigers forced two three-and-outs a fumble and an interception.
The fumble was the biggest play as linebacker Stephone Anthony stripped sack Murray on third down from his own 13 and Spencer Shuey at the Georgia 16. Boyd made them pay a few plays later when he kept the ball on third-and-goal from the three to tie the game.
After Watkins fumbled the football on a muffed punt and Georgia recovered at the Clemson 30. But on the next play, defensive end Corey Crawford stepped in front of a Murray pass to end the threat.
Clemson’s defense continued to be hot to start the second half as it got its fourth sack of the game on Georgia’s opening possession of the third quarter.
Boyd then completed 5-6 passes on the ensuing drive, which he capped with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Zac Brooks to give the Tigers a 28-21 lead with 10:58 to play.
Georgia got gutsy on its next possession when punter Collin Barber faked the punt from his own 34 and ran ahead for five yards and a first down. Another long run by Hicks and a few plays later Gurley tied the game with a 12-yard touchdown.
Clemson came back down the field on its next possession and had a first-and-goal at the nine, but the Tigers failed to get in the end zone and instead settled for a 24-yard Chandler Catanzaro field goal with 4:46 to go in the third quarter.
Georgia moved to the Clemson two-yard line and on third-and-goal, Hicks was stopped for a loss and when the Bulldogs tried to tie the game with a short field goal, the holder muffed the snap and Georgia got nothing on the drive.