Terming the 28-6 loss to Georgia Tech “an absolute disaster,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hadn’t a clue Saturday what step to take next after “as bad an offensive game as, maybe, I’ve ever been around – ever.”
Georgia Tech staked its claim to at least a share of the ACC Coastal title despite a season-low 353 yards and one offensive touchdown. The game pivoted on Tech’s defense, which limited Clemson to a season-low 190 yards and returned two of three interceptions for scores.
Tilting the table was the loss of freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to a knee injury in the final minutes of the first quarter. Watson, who missed three full games and most of a fourth with a broken bone in his throwing hand, reinvigorated a lurching offense. Clemson was leading 3-0 when he went down at the Tech 14-yard line after a 7-yard run.
Swinney said Watson was injured without contact, and that the final prognosis would not be determined until after an MRI. Two sources near the program said Watson sustained a torn ACL and would not play again this season.
Cole Stoudt, who began the season as Clemson’s starting quarterback, entered the game again after a Watson injury and played miserably. On his third snap at the Tech 8, he tried to throw a screen pass that Jamal Golden intercepted and returned 85 yards for a touchdown to make the score 6-3. In the third quarter he threw a pair of interceptions, the first, with Clemson down 16-3, led to a field goal, and the second, which hit safety Chris Milton in the chest, was returned 62 yards for a touchdown and a 25-6 lead.
If there had been any lingering doubt – it was gone.
“Look, you all saw the game. It’s not on Cole,” Swinney said. “He did not have his best day, but we all have ownership of this game.”
Stoudt completed 3 of 11 passes for 19 yards and threw a third interception late in the third quarter. Sophomore Nick Schuessler entered for the final possession of the third quarter and completed all four passes but couldn’t manufacture a rally. Clemson’s 65 passing yards were the lowest in more than two decades.
Swinney wasn’t prepared to speculate on what Clemson would do at quarterback for Georgia State this week, let alone South Carolina in the final game. Players tried to remain upbeat, though it was evident that the loss, and Watson’s injury wore on them all.
“You could tell the offense didn’t have the same spark,” defensive tackle DeShaun Williams said. “Lose somebody that special right there, it’s going to hurt. We’ve just got to trust in Cole and hope for the best.”
Another player said Stoudt was probably struggling with self-confidence after winning the starting job in April then losing it the third game of the season to a freshman.
“Things just didn’t go right this day,” Stoudt said. “It’s a rough day, but there’s something that always can be fixed.
“It’s football. Bad things happen.”
Conversely, any comparable defensive performance would be lauded. Clemson, with one of the nation’s most frugal defenses, limited one of the nation’s most prolific ground games to 251 yards – more than 80 below its average – including runs of 65 yards and 46 yards that set up a touchdown and a field goal. That meant Clemson limited Tech to 140 yards on the other 48 carries and recovered two fumbles. The first led to a field goal when Watson was still in the game.
“We didn’t give our defense a chance,” Swinney said. “Bottom line is you can’t turn the football over.
“It was a whole different ball game, different feel, different everything,” he said. “You’re not going to beat GT when they score on defense.”
Apparently in peak condition, Watson was nimble and crisp after shaking off the rust in Clemson’s first possession. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 27 yards and rushed 7 times for 40 yards.
“Really hate it for him,” said Swinney, whose eyes betrayed fatigue and emotion. “It was off to the races. He had a good start. It’s just a shame.”
Sure to see its ranking improve at 9-2, 6-2 in the ACC, Tech must wait on Duke and Miami to finish their conference schedules, but there’s a solid chance the Yellow Jackets would face Florida State in the ACC championship game.
Despite the clipped finish to its six-game win streak, Clemson (7-3, 6-2) should hang in the top 25, but the bowl options are probably less appealing regardless of what happens.
“We’ve got a lot of opportunity left the last two weeks,” Swinney said. “We’ve got to get back to work and finish strong.”
Whether it’s Stoudt or Schuessler at quarterback might not matter at this stage. Watson won’t be back before spring practice, and that could be a stretch.
“Let’s hope they get it together soon,” said Williams of the offense. “We’re going to be behind them no matter what. We’re a family. We aren’t going to point fingers, but this hurt.
“We had a lot on the line – a BCS bowl – but now we’ve just got to go against Georgia State. We need this game next week to let out some aggression.”