By Michael Crouchley
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first time in seven years, the Clemson football team opened its season with a loss.
In 2014, the Tigers lost their season opener to Georgia 45-21 — and on Saturday, it was the Bulldogs again.
Clemson’s defense looked the part at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., but the Tigers’ offense was toothless, and Clemson ultimately fell 10-3.
“We lost to a really, really good football team in a slugfest — an absolute fist fight,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “They hit a few more body blows than us, but down the road, we’ll see a lot of growth from this one.”
No. 3 Clemson managed only 179 yards of total offense as No. 5 Georgia’s defense dominated the Tigers at the line of scrimmage.
The Bulldogs have been the best team in the country at stopping the run for the past two seasons, and they looked even better on Saturday, holding the Tigers to only two rushing yards.
“The biggest thing is that we weren’t able to establish a rhythm,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “When we started to get going, we would have some critical penalties or a one-on-one breakdown, and that made it hard to establish any kind of run game.
“It’s just a combination of a lot of things. But the main thing is that in the critical moments we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.”
Georgia’s defense was constantly in the backfield pestering Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei as well. He was sacked an eye-popping seven times — the Tigers gave up only 1.67 sacks per game last season — and completed 19 of his 37 passes for 178 yards and one interception.
That one interception was returned 74 yards for a touchdown by Georgia’s Christopher Smith — a pick-six that was ultimately the difference in the game.
“That one play was the difference,” Swinney said. “There were a lot of bad plays, but it comes down to three or four — that was the difference.”
On the other hand, Clemson’s defense was excellent. Even with starting defensive tackle Tyler Davis and starting safety Nolan Turner out, the Tigers held Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels to 113 yards and an interception, and held its elite running back room to 121 yards and no touchdowns.
But it wasn’t enough.
Both elite defenses were on full display in the first quarter, and the first four drives of the game all ended in punts.
The Tigers’ offense had an especially tough time. They finished the first period with -5 yards of total offense, while Uiagalelei was sacked twice.
That trend continued into the second quarter. After Georgia’s Jake Podlesny missed a short field goal, the next three drives also ended in punts.
The Tigers caught a lucky break when Spiers’ fourth punt of the game hit Kendall Milton and was recovered by Clemson long-snapper Jack Maddox. It was the Bulldogs, however, that got on the scoreboard first — when Uiagalelei’s pass a few plays later was intercepted by Georgia’s Christopher Smith and taken 74 yards to the house.
The score held at 7-0 until half time, marking the first time Clemson has been shut out in the first half since a 14-13 win over N.C. State in 2010. Clemson’s offense couldn’t get anything going in the first half, but it especially struggled on the ground, finishing the first half with only 1 rushing yard.
The Tigers defense provided the offense with a golden opportunity early in the second half, when linebacker Baylon Spector intercepted a pass from Daniels, giving Clemson the ball at Georgia’s 33 yard line.
But Uiagalelei was sacked twice on the ensuing drive, and Spiers was back on the field to punt. Georgia then marched all down the field, capping off an 11 play, 81 yard drive with a Podlesny field goal.
After forcing a Georgia punt to start the fourth quarter, Clemson’s offense finally found its groove.
The Tigers put together an 82-yard drive — highlighted by a 44-yard reception by Joseph Ngata on third down — and they were finally able to get on the board with 22-yard field goal from B.T. Potter.
Ngata was maybe the lone bright spot for the Tigers’ offense, finishing with a game-high — and career-high — 110 receiving yards on six catches.
“That’s going to be huge for him,” Swinney said of Ngata’s performance. “I’m super proud of him. It’s great to see him healthy, and it’s great to see him have a night. I think that’s going to be big for his confidence.”
Clemson had one final chance late, as Uiagalelei led the Tigers into Georgia territory late in the fourth quarter. But the Tigers couldn’t convert on fourth down, and Georgia was able to run out the clock, holding on to the win.
“It was very frustrating,” Swinney said. “We’ve got a lot of explosive guys, and we just have to put it all together. This is a tough matchup out of the gate, and we just didn’t play as well as we’re capable of playing.
“I’m not going to put my head down and call the season off because we lost 10-3 to a great team. For us, all of our goals are still in front of us. When you step in the ring for games like this, they’re hard ones to win. You need to make the critical plays — we didn’t and they did, so congrats to them. We’ll show back up Monday and we’ll get back to work.”
UGA 0 7 3 0 — 10
CU 0 0 0 3 — 3
UGA — Smith 74 fumble return (Podlesny kick), 2:58
UGA — Podlesny 22 field goal, 2:38
CU — Potter 22 field goal, 9:08
First Downs 15 14
Total Yards 256 180
Rushes-Yards 31-121 23-1
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 2-0
Com-Att-Int 22-30-1 19-37-1
Passing Yards 135 178
Penalties-Yards 10-94 7-59
Punts-Avg 5-43.4 8-41.3
RUSHING — Georgia, White 13-74, Milton 6-29, Cook 5-19, Johnson 1-6; Clemson, Dixon 1-10, Pace 4-7, Shipley 4-7, Uiagalelei 14-(-)22
PASSING — Georgia, Daniels 22-30-1 135; Clemson, 19-37-1 178
RECEIVING — Georgia, Bowers 6-43, Rosemy-Jacksaint 2-12, McConkey 2-12, Cook 4-7; Ngata 6-110, Ross 4-26, Galloway 3-13, Allen 2-8
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