Clemson handled Georgia Tech for a season-opening win late Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While the scoreboard may have been lopsided in the Tigers’ favor, not everything about Clemson’s performance was perfect.
Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from the Tigers’ 41-10 win.
Where else can you start but with a defense that looked as dominant as advertised? Led by what’s arguably the most talented defensive line in college football, Clemson’s defense set the tone for a suffocating night by notching an interception on Tech’s first offensive play, which, right on cue, was aided by K.J. Henry’s pressure on quarterback Jeff Sims.
Tech averaged just 7.1 yards per pass attempt. The yards per completion was even worse (4.5). Running the ball? Forget it (2.5 yards per carry). It all added up to just 3.6 yards per play for the Yellow Jackets, who finished with 238 total yards and found the end zone just once against Clemson’s defensive speed and athleticism.
Speaking of Henry, the Tigers’ fifth-year defensive end was arguably the best player on the field. Henry finished tied for the team lead with six tackles and had a sack as well as a team-best 2.5 tackles for loss. And, like the opening play of the game, there were countless other times Henry impacted Tech’s ability to execute its offense with effort that won’t show up on the stat sheet.
On offense, D.J. Uiagalelei settled in after a slow start, throwing with rhythm, timing and, most importantly, accuracy. The Tigers’ quarterback, who also ran for a 9-yard score, completed right at 60% of his passes (19 of 32), a rate that could’ve been even higher had he gotten more help (more on that in a minute). Uiagalelei eclipsed 208 passing yards (210), something he did just twice all of last season.
Freshman Cade Klubnik got his shot to operate the offense late in the fourth quarter and certainly looked the part of a blue-chip signee, quickly leading the Tigers on a 66-yard scoring drive. He went 4 of 6 passing on the drive, including a touchdown pass to Will Taylor.
Meanwhile, the special teams had a banner night. Clemson blocked two punts in a game for the first time since 2007, but head coach Dabo Swinney said his special-teams MVP was Aidan Swanson, who overcame a rough start to preseason camp to average 44 yards a punt, including a 51-yarder, in his first game as Will Spiers’ successor.
“You media that were at that first practice, I know y’all were probably pretty shocked,” Swinney said. “Y’all probably thought I was blowing smoke, but he really only had one bad day. Unfortunately, y’all were there. Maybe I should move the punt until the end of practice when y’all are gone.
“After that first day, Aidan has been great. And to be able to see him come out there tonight and have a game like he did, that’s going to be a great confidence-builder for him.”
Before Uiagalelei got in a better groove late, there were times he still looked indecisive. As a result, he took some sacks after holding on to the ball too long, which is one thing Swinney said Clemson can’t have at the quarterback position.
Another that Swinney has mentioned is turnovers, which Uiagalelei struggled with a season ago. The issue popped up again at the end of the Tigers’ second possession when Uiagalelei fumbled in the red zone, thwarting Clemson’s first real scoring threat.
But Clemson’s most glaring offensive struggle was the running game, which produced just 3 yards per carry. Shipley was Clemson’s leading rusher with just 42 yards on 10 carries as there wasn’t a ton of room for the running backs or Uiagalelei, whose number was often called on designed runs, to operate. Clemson’s longest run of the night covered just 12 yards.
The Tigers’ retooled offensive line didn’t get a ton of push up front, and there were plenty of times Blake Miller looked like a true freshman making his first career start at right tackle. There’s potential for the line to be better than it was a season ago, particularly if it can stay relatively healthy, but Monday showed the group is still very much a work in progress.
Clemson’s coaches are still high on Joseph Ngata’s potential. Beaux Collins and E.J. Williams are back healthy. And, according to coaches, Brannon Spector, back from his one-year hiatus, has shown since the spring the kind of speed and short-area quickness that Clemson needs in the slot.
Yet Clemson’s top receivers were largely invisible in the opener.
Collins had a toe-tapping, 6-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone late in the second quarter, but that was easily the highlight of the night for a group that wasn’t heavily involved, though it wasn’t always for a lack of trying. Collins, Ngata and Williams combined for just five catches for 69 yards, and Spector’s lone touch of the night came when he scooped up a blocked punt in the second quarter.
There were also multiple drops, including one each by Collins and Williams on well-placed balls by Uiagalelei that stalled Clemson’s first drive of the fourth quarter when the Tigers had just a two-score lead. Even tight end Davis Allen, who later hauled in Uiagalelei’s longest completion of 29 yards with a leaping catch along the sideline, failed to catch what would’ve been a touchdown from Uiagalelei on a ball that hit him in the hands at the goal line.
“Any time you miss a throw, you miss a throw or you miss a drop, yeah, that’s something you’d like to have back,” offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter said. “Guys are going to make mistakes, but guys are going to respond. We’re just looking for growth now as we move forward.”
True freshman Antonio Williams was Clemson’s leading receiver with four catches, a number matched by running back Kobe Pace. Clemson needs far more out of its wideouts if the offense is going to take a sizable step forward this season.
Dear Old Clemson is excited to announce a limited edition football and poster signed by Clemson’s Avengers.
Now there is a new way you can support Clemson student-athletes. Purchase collectibles from Dear Old Clemson and the proceeds with go to support Clemson student-athletes. Visit Dear Old Clemson to find out how you can help!