CHARLOTTE — Clemson’s new offensive era entered the season with promise.
Sure, the Tigers had to replace two of the program’s most impactful players on that side of the ball in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne. But D.J. Uiagalelei birthed plenty of optimism in his two highly successful spot starts last season, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was high on the depth and versatility of the backs still left on the roster running behind an offensive line with multiple starters back from a 10-win team a season ago.
All the Tigers’ offense was Saturday, though, was offensive.
No. 2 Clemson got its 2021 campaign started with a dud in its marquee opener against No. 5 Georgia. The Tigers hung around by holding the Bulldogs to just 256 yards and 4.3 yards per play, but Clemson would’ve killed for those numbers in its first game without a touchdown since its Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama in 2018.
The Tigers’ offense looked nothing like the explosive juggernaut the program had become accustomed to with Lawrence at the helm, finishing with one of their worst performances on that side of the ball in the Swinney era. By the time it was over, Clemson had mustered just 180 yards, averaged 3 per snap and scored its fewest points since a 13-3 loss to Georgia Tech in 2007.
“It’s very frustrating,” Swinney said. “And we’ve got a lot of explosive guys. We’ve just got to put it all together. It’s just a tough opener. We could’ve played somebody lesser or whatever and had a bunch of plays and everyone’s excited. But It’s just a tough matchup out of the gate. We just didn’t quite have the consistency, rhythm and timing. We just didn’t play as well as we’re capable of playing.”
Field position didn’t help the Tigers early — Clemson’s averaging starting field position on its first four drives was its own 12-yard line — but where the Tigers were lining up wasn’t the primary issue for most of the night. It was who they were lining up against.
Clemson had no answers for Georgia’s much-ballyhooed defensive line, which plugged running lanes early and often and applied subsequent pressure on Uiagalelei in waves. The Tigers ended the first quarter with minus-5 yards of offense, and it didn’t get much better, particularly on the ground.
Clemson started Matt Bockhorst at center and true freshman Marcus Tate at left guard in Bockhorst’s place. The Tigers also rotated sophomore Paul Tchio in with Tate, but none of the combinations worked against a Georgia defense that’s been the best against the run the last two seasons.
Kobe Pace, Will Shipley and Lyn-J Dixon, who was held out of the first half for what Swinney said was a violation of team rules, combined for just 24 yards on nine carries, and Uiagalelei was sacked seven times, matching the most Clemson has given up in a game since the program began officially keeping the stat in 1981.
Add up all of that backward movement, and it left the Tigers with 2 net rushing yards. It’s the fourth-fewest for Clemson since it started playing football in 1896.
“There’s no question we’ve got to do a better job. And it was tough, tough challenge for us out of the gate,” Swinney said. “We started a true freshman at left guard that’s going to be a good player. There’s going to be some good and bad on tape. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches to put theme in position to be successful as well, but I’m not going to put my head down and write the season off because we lost 10-3 to a top-5 team.”
Taking away the running game allowed Georgia to pin its ears back and get after Uiagalelel. And since there wasn’t much time for routes to develop down the field, the Bulldogs’ secondary squatted on the short throws the Tigers’ young quarterback was often looking to make. There was no better example of that than when Christopher Smith anticipated Justyn Ross’ slant late in the second quarter, stepped in front of the throw and turned it into a 74-yard pick-six that broke a scoreless tie at the time and ultimately stood as the deciding score.
“We were trying to settle D.J. in and just give him some rhythm throws to try and get him under control and back feeling like he has command of the game,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “So the biggest thing for us was, the run game, we were trying to establish it, and you take out the sacks, we had 3 yards per carry.
“The biggest thing is when we started to get going, we would have critical penalties or a one-on-one breakdown or a matchup issue that resulted in a sack.”
It was part of a frustrating night for Uiagalelei, who set career-lows in completion percentage (51.3) and passing yards (178) while committing the first turnover in 11 games he’s played for the Tigers. The same could be said for the offense as a whole considering the level it played at last season in helping the Tigers reach their sixth straight College Football Playoff.
Clemson ranked in the top 10 nationally in points, yards and passing offense a season ago. But Saturday’s no-good, very-bad performance against an elite opponent showed the Tigers have miles to go to get back to that level.
“This team will be judged by what we do over the course of the season and the postseason and so forth. Not by what happened tonight in one game,” Swinney said. “Definitely disappointed and definitely a lot of bad on tape and bad that we’ve got to improve from. And we will.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!