ATLANTA — A holding penalty negated Clemson’s best chance to take control of the game. Then run-heavy Georgia Tech and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas trumped the Tigers through the unlikeliest of avenues — the air.
The Tigers’ 30-27 loss on Thursday night at No. 15 Georgia Tech looked a lot like coach Dabo Swinney’s first game last season, a 21-17 home loss to the Yellow Jackets.
But this year’s game has one difference, Swinney said.
“If we can harness that effort, that will to win, we’re going to have a special year,” Swinney said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. Maybe we’ll see this team down the road. This was a good football team. We’re going to be a good football team.”
The difference between the two teams was that the Yellow Jackets (2-0, 1-0) made the critical play at the end, and that led to Scott Blair’s game-winning 34-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining.
In a scene reminiscent of last year’s opening-game debacle against Alabama, the Tigers were embarrassed from the onset, falling in a 24-0 hole early in the second quarter and quashing any thought that this game would continue the series’ recent history of nail-biters.
The fallout from that Alabama loss seemed to be the inspiration behind Swinney’s postgame session with the media, where he echoed a passionate pledge that Clemson would not allow the negativity that splintered Tommy Bowden’s team last year to infiltrate again.
“That’s the difference in this year’s team, we stayed together,” senior running back C.J. Spiller said. “Last time we were down here (Atlanta), we kind of splintered against Alabama, yelling at each other. But we kept believing, and that really shows the leadership on this team.”
Not to mention its explosive potential.
Behind a 261-yard, three-touchdown passing performance from redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Parker — making his second start — Clemson rallied to go ahead 27-24 on Richard Jackson’s 53-yard field goal with 11:33 remaining.
But Georgia Tech responded with a 34-yard tying field goal with 5:40 left, and then it was deja vu for Dabo all over again.
Last year, with Clemson trying for the go-ahead touchdown, lineman Thomas Austin was penalized for holding on a 27-yard completion to Jacoby Ford on fourth-and-12 from the Clemson 42 with 2:42 to go.
This year, with 3:14 left, a holding call on Austin wiped out a 39-yard pass to Ford on third-and-11 that would have positioned the Tigers at Georgia Tech’s 18.
Last year, 6-foot-3 Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas had a 23-yard catch against 5-9 corner Chris Chancellor to convert a third-and-14 on the team’s game-winning drive — which ended with a Thomas’ 24-yard scoring catch versus Chancellor with 5:22 remaining.
This year, with 1:38 left, Thomas got behind Chancellor on a post corner and hauled in a 39-yarder on third-and-11, putting the Yellow Jackets at the Clemson 27.
“We didn’t generate enough rush,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said of the play. “Against a normal team, we probably could have pressured that to win the game, pressured and cut it loose. But with these guys, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Which aptly described the entire contest.
For most of the first half, it appeared that Clemson’s only solace might be C.J. Spiller’s 63-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter — which snapped the team’s stretch of nine quarters without a touchdown at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Swinney admitted to being “out-coached” in the first quarter as Georgia Tech struck three big plays — an 82-yard touchdown run on the Yellow Jackets’ second play from scrimmage; an 85-yard punt return score when Jackson failed to pooch-punt out of bounds on an odd fake 57-yard field goal; and a 34-yard touchdown pass to Thomas when the Tigers were caught napping on a fake field goal.
“Outside of that, the Tigers dominated,” Swinney said. “It’s very disappointing.
“In a tough environment, they showed heart and toughness. They didn’t quit.”
Swinney reiterated to the team that no ACC champion since 2000 has gone undefeated in conference play and that all of the team’s goals remain intact heading into Saturday’s noon home game against Boston College.
“This game isn’t going to break our season,” Spiller said. “We can’t let this one beat us twice.”