The football gods looked down on Clemson and smiled Saturday night, delivering an opening game that met the hype and, perhaps, exceeded it.
Playing before for a packed house and a national TV audience, eighth-ranked Clemson slayed No. 5 Georgia, 38-35, to perhaps help exorcise the Tigers’ reputation as an underchiever and officially throw their hat into the ring for the national championship.
In its first visit to Death Valley in 10 years, Georgia tried a laundry list of gimmicks and hijinks, from faux injuries to a punt fake to meeting Clemson at the foot of The Hill to taunt the Tigers as they came onto the field. It came down to football, and Georgia’s best horses couldn’t pull it across the line
While the game had its share of gaffes common to first games, it was a game of big plays by great talents.
“Definitely, we can stand against anybody, play against anybody,” said offensive tackle Brandon Thomas. “It was a big game.
“I think we will make a good run this year. We’re one of the best teams in the country, I feel.”
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd further fueled Heisman Trophy talk, accounting for all five Clemson touchdowns. In his third season as a starter, he completed 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for 42 yards and the other two. Boyd’s TD passes went to receiver Sammy Watkins, running back Zac Brooks and tight end Stanton Seckinger.
Rod McDowell showed his mettle and fitness as a lead running back with 132 yards on 22 carries, including several big runs in Clemson’s final scoring drive. Seckinger’s touchdown in the fourth quarter was initially ruled out of bounds at the two, but a review flipped the decision, making the 73 points the most in the 63 games between the teams.
“When we step on the field on Saturdays, we compete as one of the best,” said McDowell, who overcame injury and being stuck on the depth chart for his biggest game.
“Personally, it’s a blessing,” he said. “This right here is the best.”
If, indeed, there were any opening game butterflies, each team needed one possession to shake them.
With its second, Clemson drove 76 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 lead, a four-yard run by Boyd. Running back Todd Gurley, who finished with 154 yards on 12 carries, responded for Georgia with a 75-yard rip in 12 ticks.
Slinging from his hip on the next possession, Boyd hit Watkins in stride near midfield. Dreadlocks flying, Watkins outran the coverage to complete a 77-yard touchdown play that also required 12 seconds, and 3:02 into the game Clemson led, 14-7.
Georgia took a more traditional route to the end zone in its next possession, 75 yards in 11 plays. As Keith Marshall scored on third-and-goal from the four with 4:12 to play in the first quarter, Georgia fans began to fret as Gurley was escorted to the locker room.
While there was sufficient time for another possession for each, Clemson punted to the three and the quarter ended with the score 14-14 after Georgia came off the ropes to the 49-yard line.
In short order, Murray hit Rantavious Wooten for 33 yards to the one, and Hicks chugged for the final yard to give the Dawgs a 21-14 advantage two minutes into the second quarter.
After gashing Clemson for more than 330 yards, Georgia suddenly lost its grip on the wheel. Georgia’s next four possessions went punt, turnover, punt, turnover before the half expired.
Caught looking over its shoulders in the shadow of the uprights, Georgia was forced to punt when Vic Beasley sacked Murray on third down. Watkins snagged the ball at the Clemson 45, but the Tigers didn’t convert their good fortune. In fact, it was nearly disaster when Boyd hit linebacker Amarlo Herrera on the numbers with nothing but green in front of him. As he slipped to the ground, he dropped the ball. Clemson punted again.
The Clemson defense caught Georgia looking over its shoulder again in the neighborhood of the end zone. Stephone Anthony got to Murray first as the Georgia line collapsed, stripping the ball for Spencer Shuey to pounce upon at the 16.
On third down, Boyd scored his second touchdown from the 2 and the score was 21-21, tied a third time with 3:51 to play in the half.
Watkins handed Georgia a gift when he mishandled a punt at the Clemson 30 late in the half, but on first down end Corey Crawford snared a Murray pass with one hand. A chop block took Clemson out of prime field position.
The second half began with much same when Vic Beasley nailed Murray with Clemson’s fourth sack to force a punt from the 2. Boyd and running back Zac Brooks capped the drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass for a 28-21 lead.
A punt fake on fourth and one at its 39 helped Georgia for its mojo and tie it for a fourth time on a 12-yard run by Gurley. Clemson responded by driving 68 yards to the 7 but the drive stalled, and Chandler Catanzaro kicked a field goal to make it 31-28 with 4:46 to play in the third.
For moment, it seemed the worm turned on Georgia’s next possession. Gurley raced for 32 and Murray hit Chris Conley on a pass that, with a personal foul, gave Georgia first and goal at the 5. Clemson stuffed three runs to force a field goal, but the snap was high and Georgia was smothered at the 8. Though Clemson punted from the 15, it neutralized the momentum again.
Seckinger’s touchdown was huge because when Georgia scored and cut the lead to three, it required an onside kick. Martavis Bryant, who dropped two passes, made his biggest catch of the night for Clemson and the game was history.