CHARLOTTE — Clemson started its season with a 10-3 loss to Georgia on Saturday. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly that transpired for the Tigers inside Bank of America Stadium
As putrid as things went for Clemson for the majority of the 60 minutes, the Tigers still had the ball with a chance to tie midway through the fourth quarter because of a defense that did everything it could to keep Clemson close. Georgia had less than 260 total yards and averaged just 4.3 yards per play, and that was with Clemson’s defense being without key contributors like defensive tackle Tyler Davis and safety Nolan Turner.
James Skalski had a game-high 14 tackles. Mario Goodrich added 12 from his cornerback spot, freshman safety Andrew Mukuba had eight in his first career start and linebacker Baylon Spector had the defense’s lone turnover with an interception of J.T. Daniels in the third quarter that set Clemson’s offense up inside Georgia’s 40-yard line. Five of the Bulldogs’ drives lasted five plays or fewer, including four in the second half. Clemson even won the turnover battle, 2-1, making Saturday just the sixth time in Dabo Swinney’s 174 games as head coach the Tigers have lost when that happens.
And while there wasn’t much to write home about regarding the offense, Joseph Ngata was a bright spot. The junior receiver had career-highs in catches (6) and receiving yards (110), showing he not only looked healthy but that he can also be a viable threat if defenses choose to try to take away Justyn Ross or any of the Tigers’ other wideouts
For the first time in his young career, D.J. Uiagalelei looked like the moment got the best of him. To be fair to Clemson’s young quarterback, he was under constant duress. He was sacked seven times and knocked around a bunch more, but Uiagalelei looked a touch off for most of the night whether it was with his accuracy, touch or awareness.
Even knowing the Bulldogs were bringing the heat up front, Uiagalelei’s internal clock seemed a bit slow, which contributed to some of those sacks as he held onto the ball too long at times. He seemed hesitant the few times he was actually able to escape the pocket as to whether to keep surveying the field for an open receiver or take off and run. He also had his first career turnover, though Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Ross was more at fault for that pick-six in the second quarter than Uiagalelei.
He still had some good moments. One was leading an 82-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter. But Uiagalelei barely completed half of his passes (19 of 37) and rarely looked like the quarterback that was receiving Heisman Trophy buzz coming into the season. He just faced the best defense he’ll see during the regular season, but if the Tigers want to win another ACC title and put themselves back into the College Football Playoff discussion, they’re going to need a lot more from their signal caller.
“It’s on me. I didn’t think I played very good,” Uiagalelei said. “I didn’t play good at all. I didn’t think I played good enough to win the ballgame today. I started playing good later on, but I’ve got to start off playing good from the beginning. I think it’s just clear as that.”
While Uiagalelei shouldering the blame rather than pointing fingers is commendable, he didn’t get much help from his offensive line. Yes, Georgia’s defensive line certainly has an argument as the best in college football, so the Bulldogs will make many of the offensive lines they face look pedestrian. Still, it’s alarming to see a team the caliber of Clemson that’s recruited so well in recent years get manhandled up front the way the Tigers did Saturday.
The group rarely got any push at the point of attack in the running game (2.6 yards per carry among the running backs), and once Georgia knew the Tigers had to throw it, the line was virtually helpless against the speed and strength of the Bulldogs’ pass rush. The interior of the offensive line still appears to be very much in flux. Matt Bockhorst slid over from left guard to make his first career start at center, and true freshman Marcus Tate started at Bockhorst’s old spot. But Clemson rotated in some other players at guard, too.
The line was down a body with Mason Trotter, who’s been competing for the starting center job, unavailable for the game for undisclosed reasons. But do the Tigers stick with Bockhorst at center? Do they move him back to guard and look more at Trotter and Hunter Rayburn at center? The questions surrounding the offensive line coming into the season only got more pressing after Saturday’s showing. But one thing’s for certain: The group can’t play like it did Saturday if Clemson is serious about being a championship team again this fall.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!