That said, it’s OK for those of us outside the program to still talk about the opener for a couple of more days.
Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Clemson’s high-powered, fast-paced offense will get a lot of attention for Saturday’s win, and they should. They were every bit as good as advertised.
But just as important to Clemson’s 1-0 start were the defense and the physical play by the offensive line.
Yes, it might be hard to think Clemson’s defense played well after giving up 35 points and 545 yards, but statistics and numbers can always be manipulated to say what you want them to say. There were mistakes, for sure, by the defense and things that need to be fixed, but overall defensive coordinator Brent Venables has to be pleased with his unit’s performance in the first game against such a strong offense.
After a slow start and giving up 21 points through the first 17 minutes of the game, Clemson’s defense responded. It completely shut down Georgia for the next quarter-and-a-half and gave the Tigers’ offense the chance to take control of the game. Georgia’s fourth touchdown came midway through the third quarter after a fake punt changed the momentum for the Bulldogs’ offense, and then the Bulldogs’ final score came in the final minute-and-a-half of the game as the Tigers were in prevent mode.
Again, the Bulldogs did get their yards – and Todd Gurley proved just how special he is running the ball – but the Tigers’ defense came up with the big plays and physical stops when it needed them. The defensive front put pressure on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray throughout the middle of the game and forced him into to two game-changing mistakes.
First, Murray was sacked by Stephone Anthony/Corey Crawford and fumbled, and it was recovered by Spencer Shuey at the Georgia 16. That set up a tying touchdown for the Tigers at 21 in the second quarter.
On the Bulldogs’ next possession, they could have taken a lead into halftime after Watkins fumbled a punt return and Georgia recovered at the Clemson 30. But on the next play, the defense confused Murray with a zone blitz, and he threw the ball right to defensive end Corey Crawford -- a mistake a senior quarterback starting for the fourth straight year shouldn’t make. But the defense’s physical play got to Murray and made him make those mistakes, and the Tigers’ four sacks seemed to rattle Murray.
That kind of physical play was also very evident by the Clemson offense, and offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell had to like what he saw from his group in the opener. When Caldwell was hired, he seemed to be the perfect fit for a team that just wasn’t very physical on the offensive front.
He has continued to work on that, and we started to see the evidence of that the past two seasons. Clemson fans got another big glimpse of that Saturday.
Boyd was only sacked once, and the running game rolled up 197 yards on 46 carries as Roderick McDowell pounded out 132 yards on 22 carries. Zac Brooks only had three carries, but he added 20 yards and was physical, as well.
A lot of the talk entering the game was that Georgia, the big-bad team from the SEC, would just push Clemson around. Georgia’s offensive line was just too strong for Clemson’s defensive front, after all. And Clemson’s offensive line wouldn’t be able to move Georgia’s defensive front.
Neither of those proved true, and that was impressive by the Clemson fronts, especially the offensive line, which more than held its own. That opened many big holes for McDowell and Brooks to run through, and McDowell made a big statement about the season he and his guys up front can have this year.
The game marked the second straight against an SEC team that Clemson dominated physically in the fourth quarter. In the Chick-fil-A bowl, LSU was completely worn down by the final quarter, and some of the same issues were seen with Georgia on Saturday. The Bulldogs’ defensive players were clearly worn down by Clemson’s physical play and pace of play, and Clemson’s defense stepped up time after time with big stop after big stop.
If the Clemson defense and offensive line continue to improve and be physical, it can be a special season, for sure, for the entire team.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at http://www.macon.com/peachsports.