ATHENS, Ga. — When crunch time arrived Saturday night, Clemson got crunched.
It’s not like the Tigers weren’t competitive for the majority of Saturday’s season-opening 45-21 loss in Sanford Stadium, and they even stayed within striking distance into the fourth quarter. But the Bulldogs ran all over the visitors in the second half and mainly the decisive fourth quarter, with star tailback Todd Gurley leading multiple teammates on a ground assault against a Clemson defensive front being touted as one of the program’s best in recent memory.
“There’s nothing worse than letting somebody run the ball on you, that’s my opinion as a defensive coordinator, and the toss sweep left and right is the foundation of who you are,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “And for a good majority of the game they’re going to make some plays, but that last eight minutes or whatever was pretty disgusting.”
The fourth quarter numbers were downright astonishing, with Georgia outgaining Clemson 211 yards to negative-19 with all of it coming on 15 rushes and no passes. The Bulldogs led by only three with just over 10 minutes remaining until speedy freshman Sony Michel scooted right for 17 yards before Gurley followed with an 18-yard touchdown run up the gut for a 31-21 lead.
Clemson still appeared alive at that point, but not for long. The Tigers went three-and-out on all four fourth-quarter possessions and were sacked four times over that span.
“Defensively in the second half we took a little pressure off our corners by not playing as much man coverage,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We challenged our men inside to keep them from running the football and we got a lot of good stuff. (Leonard) Floyd and (Jordan) Jenkins on the edge are formidable guys and our inside linebackers played well for the most part.”
As for the dominant ground game that was more than just the exploits of Gurley, who ran for a career-high 198 yards on an economical 15 carries, Richt said, “We knew we had fine backs and we knew at some point in the game that we’d have fresh legs in there and tired people trying to tackle them, and that’s what happened in the second half.”
The Bulldogs rushed only 12 times for 45 yards in the first half, but Nick Chubb (like Michel, just a freshman) finished with 70 yards on four carries while Michel ran six times for an effective 33 yards. The change of pace with the power of Chubb, the speed of Michel and the ultimate combination from Gurley was too much to handle over the long haul on a sweltering night.
“We just didn’t tackle,” Clemson defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “The aim of the defense is to get the guy on the ground. It’s fixable, but we knew what we were getting when we came into this game. They have great running backs and to be successful we had to tackle them and make the plays. We did a good job of that for three quarters, but then it got away from us, so we’ve got to learn and get better.”
Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt had an impressive beginning to his starting debut in leading Clemson to a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that ended with D.J. Howard’s 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal on the game’s opening possession. Georgia went up 14-7 before Dorman product Charone Peake caught his lone pass of the game, a 30-yard touchdown on a perfect throw into double-coverage by freshman Deshaun Watson on his first-career series.
The Tigers went up 21-14 before Gurley returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards with 7:15 left en route to a 21-21 halftime tie.
“Both teams were flying around,” Richt said. “It was a game of momentum and I think by far the biggest play was the kickoff return for a touchdown. It just got us back in it. We put our very best players on special teams and it paid off.”
Stoudt finished 15 of 28 passing for 130 yards and zero touchdowns, while Watson played three series and was 2 of 4 for 59 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s tough and there’s some frustration there,” Stoudt said. “We went out there and struggled a little bit, but it’s something we will have to get better on and build as a team.”
Clemson was hamstrung all night by the inability to start with decent field position, with the Tigers starting drives at an average of their 19-yard line. Georgia, meanwhile, began with an average of its 43. Remarkably, it was just the second time in 17 years that Clemson averaged starting inside its own 20 in a game.
“We just could not get the field position flipped,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s the difference in the game. Eventually that is going to catch up with you. They did a great job of getting us behind the chains and we got into some long-yardage situations where we couldn’t convert. We were playing uphill the entire second half.”