CLEMSON, S.C. – Coinciding with the opening kickoff, a bat flew out of the rain and landed on the back of my head in the press box.
It proved to be the most exciting moment of Saturday night’s one-sided Clemson-Georgia Tech rivalry showdown.
The Tigers shook off their setback at Syracuse two weeks ago and resumed its pursuit of a third consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship and College Football Playoff appearance with a commanding 24-10 victory over a Yellow Jackets team that simply couldn’t match up physically.
By the time everything was in hand (which was early), Clemson’s defensive front had 1,200 pounds simultaneously Swag Surfing to the music between plays in the rain.
“It’s wet, the field’s soaked, our shoes are soaked, so why not do a little ‘Swag Surf?’” defensive end Austin Bryant said. “We all knew how to do the dance. Just enjoying the moment. Those are the moments that you’re going to remember forever, the times you were just having fun with your teammates.”
This was exactly the kind of night Clemson needed to close out October by restoring its national championship swagger after two weeks of digesting an unlikely defeat.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant was back to his normal self after hobbling until he was concussed in Clemson’s shocking upset loss at Syracuse. By the end of the first quarter, Bryant had already thrown a pair of touchdown passes despite the steady rain.
And that was essentially that. Georgia Tech went 44 minutes, 30 seconds and trailed 24-3 before any Yellow Jacket player other than B-back KirVonte Benson had any positive yardage on the stat sheet. It took Matthew Jordan replacing Taquon Marshall at quarterback to do that with a pair of 5-yard runs to end the third quarter.
Benson’s impressive 129 rushing yards to that point included runs of 65 and 20 yards, meaning that outside of those two plays Georgia Tech’s vaunted option offense had accumulated 32 yards in 34 plays against a Tigers defense that wasn’t messing around.
“I thought we were ready to play, but clearly, we weren’t,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
Johnson’s triple option offense doesn’t work when the opponent takes away options the way the Tigers have done consistently under defensive coordinator Brent Venables and a series of NFL-caliber defensive lineman who blow up the Jackets’ best-laid plans.
“We tried to make some things happen on the perimeter,” said Marshall, who had negative yardage rushing and passing until the fourth quarter after he was yanked for a series. “I really let the team down as my performance shows. It was frustrating for me. I would try to make a play to get guys sparked but they took it away. They kind of had our number tonight.”
Clemson has figured Georgia Tech out better than anyone has. Eight different Tigers defenders accounted for 11 tackles for loss on the night.
“No magic involved,” said Venables of his gameplan. “Just preparation. Guys responded, especially after our last outing which wasn’t really reflective of who we are.”
This was precisely the kind of corrective performance the Tigers needed as it has to turn around and play on the road at N.C. State in a game that is likely to decide who wins the Atlantic Division. A year ago, the Wolfpack was a missed field goal away from scuttling Clemson’s championship season.
“Everything is about how you respond,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Good teams respond, and great teams respond like we did. We were better tonight than we probably have been at any point this season.”
With a cold rain coming down almost the entire night on the 80,346 brave fans in Death Valley, the Tigers reset the tone by having as much fun as a football team can have in those conditions.
“I enjoyed every part of tonight,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said of the dancing and playing in the mud.
The most encouraging sign of all, however, was the performance of Bryant. The quarterback used the two weeks off to not only recover from his concussion but get full strength back in the ankle he sprained against Wake Forest had him so out of sorts before he got knocked out at Syracuse.
“By Monday, I was feeling back to my usual self,” said Bryant, who never got touched by Georgia Tech on Saturday. “I thought we all responded in a good way.”
The Tigers need Bryant at full strength for the closing stretch where they cannot afford another misstep if they want any chance to play for another national title.
“We’re right where we wanted to be coming into this season,” Swinney said. “It’s November, and we’re moving into the next phase of our journey. If we want something, we’re going to have to go and get it. And we’re one of the teams that has a chance, and that’s right where we wanted to be. I’m excited about having the opportunity to control our own destiny. It’s up to us to take advantage of it.”