CLEMSON — Seldom do college football season openers live up to the hype. Saturday’s Top 10 showdown between Clemson Georgia at Memorial Stadium was the exciting exception.
No matter that eighth-ranked Clemson recorded one of the biggest wins in program history against fifth-ranked Georgia. No matter that the Tigers likely propelled themselves into national championship talk with the 38-35 victory.
What a national television audience and 83,830 mostly orange-clad fans witnessed was college football at its best. Two top-level teams playing at their top-level best. The game was crisply played with most of the mistakes the result of hard-nosed play.
There were big plays galore. There was late-game drama when Georgia pushed across a touchdown in the final minutes. Not until Martavis Bryant fielded a Georgia onside kick did Clemson secure the win.
How sweet a win it was for the Tigers.
As soon as quarterback Tajh Boyd took a knee to end the game, what seemed like the entire Clemson student body stormed the field to celebrate. Moments earlier, Clemson fans serenaded their team with chants of “ACC! ACC! ACC!” perhaps signaling, for a while at least, that the Tigers can compete with teams from the nation’s best and baddest football conference, the SEC.
That makes back-to-back big wins for Clemson against SEC opponents. The Tigers made a statement in January with a Chick-fil-A Bowl triumph against LSU, then put an exclamation mark on that statement with the decision over Georgia.
If there was any remaining chatter about the coaching prowess of Dabo Swinney, it should be silenced. Swinney appeared to get the best of his counterpart on the other sideline, the well-respected veteran Mark Richt.
Swinney and his staff seemed to push all the right buttons. Clemson’s fast-paced offense produced 467 yards, none more important than the 87 the Tigers traveled in a 12-play drive that gave them a 38-28 lead with 7:40 remaining.
Of course, Boyd was the ringleader. He was remarkably efficient with an 18-for-30 passing performance for 270 yards and three touchdowns. At one point, he completed 10 consecutive passes. He also carried the ball 13 times for 42 yards and two touchdowns, and assured anyone with any doubts that his name should be included on Heisman Trophy contender charts.
Boyd received plenty of support from running back Roderick McDowell, who rushed for 132 yards on 22 carries, and receiver Sammy Watkins, who caught six passes for 127 yards.
As odd as it might seem, though, a game that featured more than 1,000 yards of total offense probably was won by Clemson’s defense. Forget the fact that Georgia rolled up 545 yards, including 323 from the arm of quarterback Aaron Murray.
When Clemson most needed stops from its defense, it got them. Georgia converted four of 14 third-down plays. At one point, Clemson’s defense allowed Georgia one first down over six consecutive possessions. Aside from Georgia’s late score, the Clemson defense permitted a lone touchdown in the second half.
That was quite an accomplishment considering how the first half went. By halftime of a 21-all tie, fans had seen a full game — heck, maybe two — of highlight-reel plays. ESPN’s SportsCenter could have cleared out space for an additional top 10 plays of the day.
The two teams started by feeling each other out, much like a heavyweight boxing match. Then it exploded into a brawl with punches and counter punches, followed by haymaker on top of haymaker.
Clemson executed a precision nine-play, 76-yard drive for the game’s first score. Before the Tigers could feel the least bit comfortable about holding a lead, Georgia’s sensational tailback Todd Gurley showed off his blazing speed with a 75-yard touchdown run on the Bulldogs’ first play following the kickoff.
On Clemson’s next play from scrimmage, Boyd found his favorite receiver, Watkins, on a quick slant-in. Watkins spun and showed he could match Gurley’s speed by outrunning the Georgia defense 77 yards to the end zone.
By then, the track meet was on until Clemson’s defense began making big plays, intercepting Murray once, sacking him four times and pouncing on one Georgia fumble.
That left Clemson with one of the biggest wins in program history in a game that should become an instant classic for college football fans.