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Clemson Dominates Georgia Tech

In a season such as the Clemson Tigers are having, it would be easy to fear laying an egg after pulling a historic upset just a week prior over a top 15 ranked Notre Dame. Clemson’s defense and special teams and the string running of Phil Mafah in the absence of Will Shipley while he was in concussion protocol were the storylines just a week ago as the Tigers knocked off the #12/15 Fighting Irish at home 31-23 to help Dabo Swinney surpass Frank Howard as the winningest head coach in Clemson’s history. This week, they had the opportunity to get a 6th win to reach bowl eligibility, back to back wins since they defeated Syracuse and Wake Forest in consecutive games back in mid September, to get back to .500 in ACC play, as well as get their 9th straight win in the series over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.


To accomplish all that, the Tigers would need to assert dominance early on against a Georgia Tech squad that has had quite a roller coaster of a year up to this point themselves. Over the last month in ACC play, the Yellow Jackets won a wild on over Miami where had the Hurricanes simply taken a knee to end the game they would have won it, but instead fumbled and set up a game-winning 44 yard TD pass from redshirt sophomore QB Haynes King to Junior Wide Receiver Christian Leary. They followed that up with a 38-23 loss to Boston College before upsetting North Carolina 46-42 the very next week, and then rolled to a 45-17 win over Virginia a week ago.


In essence, while this Georgia Tech squad was 5-4 coming in, they have been pesky, particularly in conference play, where they had a 5-4 record prior to Saturday’s tilt in Death Valley. Clemson, hot as they have been, would need to avoid the fumble-itis that has been plaguing them, and the defense would need to keep Haynes King and the Yellow Jackets back on their heels if they were going to get that vital 6th win.


Things got off to a slow start for the Tigers after winning the toss and deferring to the 2nd half. They surrendered a 13 yard run on 1st and 15 following a false start, but managed to keep the Jackets from getting a first down thanks to back to back incompletions, one of which went right through the outstretched hands of a wide open Eric Singleton down the far sideline. The ensuing punt was downed at the Clemson 27.


Each squad traded 3 and outs on the next 2 series, but on Clemson’s 2nd of the game, they gambled with a fake punt on 4th and 9 from their own 21. Dabo Swinney admits it was a called play and not a bobble, but on the play, punter Aidan Swanson took off towards the near sideline and was stopped 5 yards short at the Clemson 25, resulting in the Yellow Jackets getting the ball deep in plus territory.


Georgia Tech took full advantage, capping a 4 play drive with a Haynes King QB keeper on 3rd and goal from the 5, drawing first blood with 6:36 to go in the opening frame for a 7-0 lead.


Clemson answered with what was their longest scoring drive in terms of time of possession since they ran out the clock on Alabama in the 2018 National Championship game (That drive took 10:02). The drive took 18 plays and 9:50 off the clock, spanning the remainder of the 1st quarter up to the 9:50 mark of the 2nd quarter and included 3 third downs, two 4th down conversions, and ended in a game-tying back shoulder TD connection from Cade Klubnik to Beaux Collins at the edge of the end zone along the right side.


The Tigers’ offense would not look back from there.


After Jeremiah Trotter sacked Haynes King on 2nd down to kill any chance at a drive for Tech on their ensuing series, Clemson managed to flip the field in their favor with a punt return to the GT 42 by Hamp Greene, setting the stage for another long TD drive capped by one of the best highlight reel snags you will ever see.


After converting on yet another 4th down with a quick pass to Tight End Jake Briningstool in the flat, who fought hard to shed a tackler and lunged forward for the yard he needed, Klubnik sensed pressure a tad early and took off to the right out of the pocket that had broken down. He threw on the run to Tyler Brown, but threw it high. It did not matter, as “Tyler from Greenville” went up the ladder and grabbed it with one hand, securing it against his chest as he came down on his back for a 3 yard touchdown reception to make it 14-7.


Georgia Tech would end up punting again on their next possession, but not before managing to flip the field position back in their favor, pinning the Tigers back at their own 8 yardline after the Hamp Greene fair catch. But, in the end, the story line in this game aside from the defense showed itself again. The field position game did not matter much at all, with Clemson managing to consistently string together two 70+ yard drives, and 5 scoring drives with just one three and out in their 13 offensive possessions in this contest.


The Tigers marched 92 yards, adding to their lead and creating the halftime margin of 21-7 on a 32 yard TD run down the sideline by Will Shipley just 1 play after he converted yet another 4th down. In total, Clemson went 4-6 on 4th down in the game with a late turnover on downs and the failed fake punt being their sole failures.


The 2nd half was the stuff of horrors.. If your name is Haynes King or your team was wearing white and gold.


The Clemson defense was already having a party in the backfield, in total amassing 4 sacks for a total loss of 23 yards. They also tallied 11 tackles for a loss as a unit. But, Haynes King would go on to throw 4 interceptions to 4 different Clemson players, all 4 of which were Freshmen. Cornerback Avieon Terrell, Safety Kylon Griffin, Cornerback Shelton Lewis, and Safety Khalil Barnes all had a pick in the 2nd half, with Lewis’ going for a 46 yard pick 6 that upped Clemson’s lead to 42-7 at the time.


Georgia Tech would go on to score a couple of late TDs to make this game look better – one on a 32 yard catch and run by senior running back Dontae Smith with 10:11 to play in the game and the other on a 4 yard TD pass from King to Dylan Leonard with just under 2 minutes left. But, make no mistake about it. Clemson did what they needed to and then some, completely dominating this game once they finally found their stride.

“I’m proud of how our guys played. They’re starting to play like I know we can. When you’ve had some issues, particularly on one side of the ball or in one particular area (I.E. offense and turnovers/fumbles), especially when the other side has put you in a position to win, it can be tough. Our guys have put us in a position to win every game. We are better than our record says and I am proud of how these guys have kept playing and growing. We are a better team for it”, said Dabo Swinney on his team’s performance and response to the adversity they have faced this season.


There were definitely several key positives from this game. Cade Klubnik was fantastic, even under pressure in this game. He finished the day 23-34 passing with 205 yards and 4 TDs with just 1 pick.


“Cade took care of the ball today and made some big plays with his legs. He made some big plays as far as conversions, such as the run that set up the 4th and 1 {on the drive where he threw the TD pass to Tyler Brown}, and only threw the one interception. The guys also made plays for him. When that happens, and your confidence starts to build, it goes a long way. He put the ball in a position for his playmakers to make plays. He made some great reads, some great throws, and it was great to see him keep growing before our eyes”, said Swinney.


The Tigers also got back a key part of their offense in Will Shipley after he missed out on the Notre Dame game a week ago due to being in concussion protocol. Shipley was a major factor, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown on 11 rushing attempts to go with 3 receptions for 30 yards. That isn’t to say Phil Mafah wasn’t absolutely incredible yet again. He was the team’s leading rusher with 96 yards and a TD on 17 carries and a TD to go with his 19 yard reception.


Asked about having Shipley back and if using him and Mafah interchangeably is his plan, Dabo had this to say.


“What we saw today was what we have envisioned all year for those guys. They made a good tag team. It was good to get Shipley back. He had been mad all week thinking people had forgotten about him. He was eager to play and he reminded everyone he can still play football.”


The Tigers also saw a lot of freshmen step up in this game, which Swinney is excited about.


“It was awesome and it puts wind in everybody’s sails. It was great to see them making plays. We have some real key pieces that aren’t there right now and these guys are stepping up and showing that we have some real dudes. Tyler Brown is making plays. Troy Stellato is basically a true freshman and is playing well for us. A lot of guys have had a baptism by fire and they are showing out.”


With Clemson’s 42-21 win on Military Appreciation Day, the Tigers followed up their statement last week well and improved to 6-4 overall. Now they face a tough top 25 test again next week in Death Valley against Drake Maye and the UNC Tar Heels. The possibility is still there that Clemson can finish the regular season 8-4. But, Dabo Swinney just wants to take it a day at a time from here out.


“We have to have a great week and stay focused on the task at hand. They (UNC) will be a huge challenge from an offense that can put up a lot of points quickly. It comes down to preparation. Hopefully we can get a guy or 2 back ({that is injured} and we can build on what we have done and the momentum. We just gotta prepare well and take it 1 day at a time”, said Swinney as he began to close his postgame press conference.


Kickoff for Senior Day next week against the Tar Heels is set for 3:30 PM and will air on ABC.

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