No. 4 Clemson Tigers Turns it on Late to Upend Georgia Tech in Season Opener
It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
While it remains to be seen how that will apply to fourth-ranked Clemson’s hopes of returning to the College Football Playoff in 2022, it worked well in their season opener. The Tigers used a stifling defense that held their opponent to 237 total yards and a late-starting offense that put up 27 second-half points to earn a 41-10 victory over Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Monday night.
The Tigers, who blocked two punts in the game, won their first game of the season for the eighth consecutive year under Dabo Swinney and picked up their eighth consecutive victory over the Yellow Jackets to start the year 1-0 overall and in the ACC.
Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, under immense pressure to improve from a rough 2021, threw one touchdown and ran in another. He went 19-of-31 passing for 209 yards with no interceptions and rushed for 28 yards on 13 carries. Running back Will Shipley scored twice via the ground, but the Tigers only mustered 3.2 yards per carry.
Backup QB Cade Klubnik got the first snaps of his Clemson career on the Tigers’ final possession with the game well in hand, and the freshman led a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive that ended with Klubnik’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Will Taylor.
Both teams got off to a slow start offensively. GT quarterback Jeff Sims threw a pass picked off by Andrew Mukuba on the first play from scrimmage. Uiagalelei turned the ball over on a fumble in Yellow Jacket territory.
Finally, Clemson jumped out to a 14-0 lead after a blocked punt led to a second-quarter touchdown run by Will Shipley on their fifth drive followed by a 6-yard TD pass from Uiagalelei to Beaux Collins.
Georgia Tech got a field goal before halftime to cut into the lead and then the Jackets scored on a 13-yard TD pass from Sims to EJ Jenkins to get within 14-10 with 9: 47 left in the third quarter.
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Clemson answered, though, with a field goal from B.T. Potter to go up 17-10. Then the next drive was sustained by the Tigers when Uiagalelei flipped the ball to Shipley while he was getting tackled on third down. Shipley ran for the first down, and Uiagalelei later scored on a 9-yard run to put Clemson up 24-10 after three quarters.
Freshman Wade Woodaz blocked the second punt of the night for the Tigers, who scored on another Shipley touchdown run to put the game away.
Player of the game: KJ Henry affected the line of scrimmage as much or more as any player on the field Monday night. The Clemson defensive end had seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble. He harassed Sims all night in the backfield and looked like a guy who’s poised for a big season in his final year.
Key play: Carson Donnelly blocked a punt in the second quarter. It was picked up by Spector and returned to the 5-yard line. It led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Shipley on fourth-and-goal with 9: 53 to play in the second quarter.
Freshman Impact: Antonio Williams caught four passes for 37 yards in his first career game. Williams, who didn’t arrive on campus until the summer, impressed his coaches in fall camp and earned playing time in Week 1. He’ll likely get a more expanded role as the season goes along.
Stat of the game: Clemson’s defense held Georgia Tech to 2-of-15 on third downs.
Coach’s decision: Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins made an interesting decision to not call timeout and stop the clock late in the second quarter with Clemson facing a fourth-and-3. There was a targeting review, and Collins could’ve given his team a chance to get the ball back with about 30 seconds left. Instead, he opted for a 10-second runoff. Swinney then let the clock run down and punted. Time expired. Collins said he thought if he called a timeout that Clemson would go for it on fourth down. Ultimately, Swinney decided to let Collins off the hook and get to the locker room.
Next Up: Clemson opens up its home portion of the schedule with a quick turnaround game against Furman at 3: 30 p.m. on Saturday. The Paladins come to Memorial Stadium 1-0 on the season. The Tigers are 36-0 against FCS teams.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.