Clemson dominates Georgia Tech in first game back after Syracuse loss
CLEMSON — Fifteen days passed and Clemson players regrouped. They took a step away. They partook in some honest self-evaluation. They flushed a stunning Syracuse loss.
Then Saturday, they came to a mucky, rainy Death Valley as their fellow students treated the stadium’s hill like a slip-and-slide, and the Tigers looked to dispose of any r lingering questions. How would No. 7 Clemson respond after a shocking loss with Georgia Tech in town? Equally as important, how would quarterback Kelly Bryant hold up after dealing with a bum ankle and a concussion last week?
Clemson found dominating clarity on both fronts, beating the Yellow Jackets, 24-10, to right the ship and keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive.
The Tigers wasted no time getting started.
Setting the tone early for what became another masterful defensive performance, linebacker Kendall Joseph forced a fumble on Georgia Tech’s first drive with safety Van Smith recovering the ball for Clemson.
That allowed Bryant and the Tigers’ offense to start their first drive on Georgia Tech’s 45-yard line. Bryant found Deon Cain for a 7-yard gain and then connected with him again for a 38-yard touchdown. Barely two minutes had passed and Clemson was on the board with a 7-0 lead it would never relinquish.
Just last week, Clemson coaches spoke to Cain about big things to come for the junior wide receiver who has not put up the numbers many expected from him at the start of the season.
“Your time is going to come,” co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott told him. And it did. Cain led all receivers with 57 yards on four catches and caught his 100th career pass.
Bryant, who said he was “80 to 85 percent” with his sore ankle at the start of the week, appeared to be at 100 percent on Saturday. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns before freshman quarterback Hunter Johnson relieved him in the fourth quarter. Bryant also ran for 67 yards.
Tight end Milan Richard caught the first touchdown reception of his career and Travis Etienne redeemed himself after an early fumble by scoring a touchdown. Kicker Alex Spence hit a 29-yard field goal for an extra boost of confidence after some recent struggles.
Defensively — again — Brent Venables’ group torched Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, setting the tone early and never taking its foot off of the gas pedal. Midway through the third quarter, defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant were having so much fun before another routine snap, that the duo actually started to dance together in perfect sync as the crowd gave them a thunderous roar. Loose and poised, the defense held the Yellow Jackets (4-3, 3-2 ACC) to 198 yards on the ground. They entered Saturday averaging nearly 373 yards.
With 75 percent of its regular season now in the books, Clemson is exactly where it wants to be heading into a divisional showdown with N.C. State next week in Raleigh. Peaking at the right moment, the Tigers looked as disciplined as they have all season Saturday night — a reality that bodes well with another test coming.