ATHENS, Ga. - It probably wasn't a display befitting a Top 10 team, and it definitely wasn't what championship-starved Georgia fans had in mind.
Saturday's 31-28 victory against Clemson in the season opener for both teams showed that the Bulldogs will fight rather than fold when shoved to the brink of a demoralizing upset.
After Clemson turned a two-touchdown Georgia lead into mush by scoring 21 straight points, the Bulldogs responded by snatching back the lead, the game, and maybe their season before a sellout crowd at Sanford Stadium.
Led by quarterback D.J. Shockley and a defense that held a potent Tigers offense in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs beat Clemson for the fourth straight time in the first meeting of the traditional rivals since 1995.
The Tigers were in scoring position late, but a 46-yard field goal attempt by Aaron Hunt fell a yard or so with 1:43 left. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt then made a gutsy call on fourth-and-1 from his own 38-yard line with 40 seconds left, electing to go for the first down rather than risk a blocked punt or long punt return.
Junior tailback Musa Smith, who rushed for 105 yards on 23 carries, plowed over the middle for a first down that allowed the Bulldogs to run out the clock.
As promised, Richt rotated Shockley and starting quarterback David Greene. Shockley, a celebrated redshirt freshman who made his Bulldogs debut, was 3-of-4 passing for 50 yards - including a 24-yard fourth-quarter scoring toss to Terrence Edwards - and ran for 10 yards and a touchdown on five carries.
Greene, a redshirt sophomore, passed for 67 yards, a touchdown and an interception on a 12-of-21 clip.
Clemson quarterback Willie Simmons, also making his first career start, was 17-of-37 passing for 165 yards while throwing a touchdown and an interception.
After Clemson moved swiftly down the field to take its first lead of the game at 28-21 with 2:25 left in the third quarter, Georgia's defense closed ranks and befuddled Clemson's offense, which was moving swiftly and effectively.
While forcing the Tigers to punt on three straight possessions, the Bulldogs generated enough offense to take back the lead.
Georgia tied the score when Shockley, who hadn't been in the game since halfway through the first half, threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Edwards with 12:35 left in the fourth quarter.
The score forged a 28-all tie, and it gave Edwards the school record for touchdown receptions in a career with 20. Edwards, a senior who played at Washington County, was tied with Brice Hunter before his catch.
Georgia created the final margin when Billy Bennett nailed a 43-yard field goal with 5:19 left.
Clemson had promising scoring opportunity on its last possession. Derrick Hamilton ran for 9 yards on a reverse, Chad Jasmin burst 12 yards up the middle, and Simmons hit Kevin Youngblood for a 13-yard pickup that put the Tigers on Georgia's 26-yard line.
Then, Clemson shifted into reverse. Jasmin lost three yards on a run, and Simmons threw two incomplete passes to set up Hunt's try for a tie.
Halfway through the second quarter, it looked as if the Bulldogs were on the verge of blowing the Tigers out of Athens. Sophomore Fred Gibson returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown to put Georgia up 14-7, and Shockley - the subject of fans' fascination since he signed with Georgia in February of 2001 - plunged into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown run that gave the Bulldogs a 21-7 cushion.
Eight minutes and 10 seconds were left in the second quarter, and Clemson seemed on life support.
But Simmons accounted for all 64 yards on the scoring drive that made the score 21-14 - including a deft 21-yard scoring pass to Youngblood with eight seconds left in the half.
Smith made a costly mistake on the Bulldogs' first drive of the second half. He took his eye off Greene's pitch on a sweep and the ball bounded to the turf, where defensive tackle Bryant McNeal scooped it up and chugged 55 yards to knot the score at 21.
Later, Simmons engineered a 76-yard drive that ended on a 2-yard plunge by tailback Yusef Kelly. The Tigers were up 28-21, and the Bulldogs were staring at the possibility of starting 0-1 with a Sept. 14 trip to South Carolina next.
But Shockley re-entered the game after Damien Gary returned a punt 40 yards to give Georgia good field position. On third-and-3 from Clemson's 24, he found Edwards for the touchdown that knotted the score and shifted the momentum in the Bulldogs' favor for good.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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