Tigers too much for Georgia Tech

Rex Brown/Courtesy The Journal
Clemson receiver Mike Williams knocks a Georgia Tech defender out of the way after a catch last Thursday night in Atlanta.

By Alex Maminakis
Courtesy The Journal

ATLANTA — Georgia Tech’s spread-option offense typically stifles opposing defenses. Clemson wasn’t fazed on Thursday night.

In their first conference game of the season, on the road, and with a short week of practice, the No. 5 Tigers (4-0, 1-0 ACC) beat the Yellow Jackets (3-1, 1-1) at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the first time since 2003 by the final score of 26-7.

It was Clemson’s offense that set the tone early with a nine-play, 75-yard opening drive that resulted in a 4-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Mike Williams — Williams’ first score of the season.

Then the Tigers’ defense took the field and quickly made it apparent that they were well prepared for Georgia Tech’s unusual offensive scheme, forcing a three-and-out. It was all Tigers from that point on.

“Our guys were locked in, played very well,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “The first half was just a dominant performance … just a dominant performance especially from our guys up front, and that’s where it all starts. Can’t tell you how proud I am of those guys.”

Clemson held the Yellow Jackets to just 22 total yards of offense in the first half, and that included a 14-yard run by freshman running back Dedrick Mills as time expired. According to ESPN, that offensive output was the second-fewest yards allowed in a first half by Clemson in the last 10 seasons.

Georgia Tech finished the game with 124 total yards. Redshirt senior quarterback Justin Thomas finished 4-of-13 for 29 yards, while Mills led the Yellow Jackets’ offense with 75 yards. It wasn’t all defense on Friday for the Tigers, though. Their 442 yards of offense were their second-most in a game this season.

“We’re getting there,” Watson said of the offense’s progression. “We still haven’t played our best football yet. Great teams improve each and every week, so there’s never satisfaction to this offense or to this team. Each week there’s always things that you can improve on.”

Watson completed 32-of-48 passes for a season-high 304 yards and two touchdowns to Williams and senior Jordan Leggett. Sophomore Ray-Ray McCloud was Watson’s favorite target on the night, finishing with eight catches for 101 yards — both season highs — and redshirt junior Wayne Gallman led all Clemson rushers with 59 yards.

The lone Clemson turnover of the game came on a second-quarter Watson interception in the end zone by junior Lance Austin, but after running it out of the end zone, Austin fumbled, and the ball was recovered by Georgia Tech in the end zone for a safety.

Those two points, however, were the last for Clemson until a 47-yard Greg Huegel field goal with 9:57 left in the fourth quarter.

The Tigers’ offense slowed down significantly in the second half, but not enough for Georgia Tech to catch up.

“The second half was weird,” Swinney said. “And that’s what happens sometimes when you play this group. We only had seven plays in the third quarter, we had two possessions … so give (Georgia Tech) some credit.”

The Thursday-night victory gave Clemson an extended rest before hosting No. 3 Louisville in this Saturday’s showdown of top-five teams in Death Valley. After a sluggish start to the year, Clemson looks to be rounding into form, and it comes at what may be a defining moment of the 2016 season.

“Now our guys get a couple days off, and we turn the page to our first division game next week,” Swinney said. “Biggest game of the year, not because it’s Louisville, but because it’s the next one.”