CLEMSON, SC – For the fifth time in as many visits to Clemson’s “Death Valley”, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (4-3, 3-2) faltered in an attempt to take down their ACC crossover division rival. An ugly first half of rain was met with a lackluster performance on the field, and the #7 Clemson Tigers (7-1, 5-1) took advantage early on their way to a 24-10 victory.
The 14 point difference tied for the lowest margin of victory in those five tilts.
The Jackets were jumped at the start, fumbling the ball just four plays into their opening possession. Two plays later, the Clemson offense delivered its first big blow. Quarterback Kelly Bryan struck via the air on two consecutive hitch routes to wide receiver Deon Cain, the latter a 6 yard connection that turned into a 38 yard touchdown strike after Cain made a lone Georgia Tech cornerback miss in the open field.
“The first series… we got a little first down going, got the [offense] going and then fumbled the ball,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “And then of course like years past, ‘boom boom’, two plays, three plays later it’s a touchdown. Then you’re digging out from behind.”
To the Jackets’ credit they responded later in the first quarter. Clemson’s next possession was stopped deep in Tech territory following defensive end Antonio Simmons’ strip of Clemson running back Travis Etienne, recovered by cornerback Step Durham.
Still down 7-0, the Jackets’ offense put together their strongest drive of the entire first half, sparked by a first-play 65-yard KirVonte Benson gash up the middle to the Clemson 9-yard line. Unfortunately the drive was stymied from there, and Tech was forced to kick a 25-yard field goal to trim the lead to 7-3.
From there it was an avalanche of miscues on both sides of the ball for the remainder of the first half. The Tigers responded immediately with another score of their own, capped by a 20-yard touchdown catch down the seam by tight end Milan Richard.
Clemson padded their lead further by way of a 71-yard touchdown drive in the 2nd quarter to take a 21-3 halftime lead. The Jackets’ offense was rendered largely ineffective for the first half, and most of the game, save for Benson’s aforementioned sprint.
All told, the Jackets were held to 110 yards of offense in the first half despite Benson gaining 120 yards of his own. Only four other offensive players found their way in the box score in the first half, all of which registered negative yardage. Tech managed just three first downs, largely due to a 1 of 8 showing on 3rd down for the half and ultimately a 3 of 15 for the game.
“We didn’t get started as fast as we would like to,” said quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “We also didn’t play as well as we would like to. I didn’t play as good as I would like.”
Marshall was held in check all night by the Tigers’ stout defense, limited to 3 of 13 passing and 23 yards on the ground in 15 carries.
“I really don’t think I got too settled in,” said Marshall.
Two bright spots for the game. One, while gashed early on, the Tech defense responded. The Tigers had 271 yards of offense and 21 points in the first half. In the second, the Jackets held Clemson to just 157 yards more and a paltry 3 points.
What changed? According to safety Corey Griffin, “[We] really didn’t make any changes. Just executed a lot better. [We] played well with our eyes and guys flew to the ball.”
Second, true freshman Tech punter Pressley Harvin III put together a spectacular effort Saturday night. Across nine punts, he launched five of those 50+ yards. He pinned three inside the Clemson 20-yard line. Altogether he averaged 46.9 yards/punt, and most importantly he flipped the field even when the Jackets’ offense sputtered deep in their own territory.
One would be hard-pressed to draw sweeping conclusions from a 14-point loss to the #7 team in the country on their home field at night, coming off of a bye and in a steady rain. After all, the Tigers managed the same margin of victory at Lane Stadium, in primetime, against a top 20 Virginia Tech Hokies team.
Following the game, the Jackets echoed a common spirit to learn from the game and move on quickly. “We can watch the film, look at our mistakes and grow from it,” said defensive end KeShun Freeman. “We lost today. We can’t let them beat us next week.”
Next week is another road trip, this time to Charlottesville to take on the Virginia Cavaliers (5-3, 2-2). Visits to Charlottesville have treated the Jackets better than those to Clemson, with Tech managing a 2-2 record at Scott Stadium under the direction of head coach Paul Johnson. The game sets up to be an important one for both schools’ postseason hopes.