CHARLOTTE – Christopher Smith’s 74-yard interception return for touchdown proved to be the differentiator as the Georgia Bulldogs’ defense overwhelmed the Clemson Tigers in a 10-3 defensive struggle, in front of 74,187 fans at Bank of America Stadium.
Smith’s scamper came on a night when Clemson could not gain any momentum offensively. The Bulldogs sacked Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei seven times, and held the Tigers’ rushing offense to just two yards on 23 attempts. Most of the pressures on Uiagalelei came with only one or two extra rushers, if that, showcasing Georgia’s top-notch defensive line.
Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart gave credit to the defense as a whole, not just the front four.
“Do we have an elite pass rush? I don’t know that yet,” Smart said. “But can we affect quarterbacks? Absolutely, if we tackle well on the perimeter and make space plays.”
While Georgia offensively managed just three points, their 4.2 yards per play kept the ball out of Clemson’s hands enough to keep the Tigers at arm’s length.
JT Daniels completed 22-of-30 passes for 135 yards, along with an interception in his own territory. Baylon Spector’s interception gave the Tigers an opening, but offense lost nine yards to take Clemson out of field goal range.
Clemson also had an opportunity on a muffed punt near the end of the first half at midfield, but Christopher Smith’s pick six occurred five plays later.
“They got the turnover, they got the touchdown, that’s the difference in the game,” Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job offensively when the opportunities were there to take advantage of them.”
Clemson kicked a field goal with 9:08 to play on its most sustained drive of the game, following that up with a defensive stand to get the ball back with 7:36 to play. The Tigers failed to convert a fourth down at the Georgia 45-yard line with 4:49 to play, and never touched the ball again.
Smart said despite missing on opportunities to shut the door on Clemson, he was proud of his team’s resolve.
“We talked about two words, composure and attention to detail. Nobody ever panicked,” Smart said. “That’s usually the sign of a good character team.”
Smart said he liked the opportunistic nature of his offense, despite amassing just 256 yards of total offense.
“When our offense had to convert, and had to force the ball down somebody’s throat, a pretty good defense, they were able to do it,” Smart said. “That makes me proud, but we certainly have a long way to go to be explosive and get where we need to go offensively.
Swinney conceded that Uiagalelei didn’t settle in “until two-and-a-half quarters into the game”, as he completed 19-of-37 passes for 178 yards for Clemson, along with the Smith interception.
“The pick six was on the receiver, it was an option route, just didn’t make the right decision,” Swinney said. “We had some plays where we didn’t have the right timing, miscues, when you’re in a game like that, the margin for error is incredibly small. That one play was the difference.”
Even though the losses spanned two different seasons, Saturday marked the first time since 2011 that Clemson lost consecutive games.
Both teams have more palatable tests next week, with Clemson welcoming in South Carolina State, while Georgia hosts UAB.