CLEMSON, S.C. — It sounds surprising to say, yet completely true.
Entering Saturday’s top-10 showdown between Clemson and Georgia, all of the hype – all of the buzz – surrounded the high-powered offenses on both sides. Tajh Boyd. Sammy Watkins. Aaron Murray. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
And while both sides traded their share of haymakers and pyrotechnics, what ultimately turned the tide in Clemson’s 38-35 win?
Following some shaky moments early on, the Tigers’ much-maligned defense made the difference with a pair of key turnovers and several important stops, sending the mostly orange-clad crowd of 83,330 home happy with one of the program’s biggest win in recent memory.
No.8 Clemson (1-0) opened its season with a major step in its quest to make the BCS national title game, while No.5 Georgia (0-1) must regroup before next week’s visit from top-10 foe South Carolina.
It was the Tigers’ second consecutive win against a top-10 SEC team, following the 25-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Louisiana State. Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 17 of 29 passes for 254 yards and three scores, while senior tailback Rod McDowell had 22 carries for a career-high 131 yards.
After both teams traded three-and-outs to begin the game, the evening turned into the celebration of offense most figured it would become.
Clemson hit first with a nine-play, 76-yard touchdown drive capped by Boyd’s 4-yard run untouched into the end zone, taking a 7-0 lead just over five minutes in.
Georgia’s answer was much quicker. Talented sophomore tailback Todd Gurley took the ball around the right end and sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown, tying the game in just 12 seconds.
Not to be outdone, Clemson had a quick answer of its own. Boyd found Sammy Watkins open in the right flat, and the speedy junior outraced a cadre of UGA defenders for a 77-yard touchdown that also covered 12 seconds, giving Clemson a 14-7 lead.
The Bulldogs bounced right back with a smash-mouth drive of their own, covering 75 yards and 11 plays over 4 minutes, 46 seconds. Tailback Keith Marshall powered 4 yards, carrying safety Travis Blanks into the end zone on his back and tying the game at 14 with 4:12 left in the first quarter.
Clemson pinned the Bulldogs at their own 3, but that excellent field position quickly backfired.
On the first play of the drive, hulking fullback Quayvon Hicks burst 37 yards up the middle, digging Georgia out of the hole. He finished the drive with a 1-yard bull up the middle, set up by Rantavious Wooten’s 34-yard catch-and-run over the right flank. Suddenly, Georgia had a 21-14 lead and momentum; Clemson’s defense was on its collective heels.
A crucial defensive play changed that.
Midway through the second quarter, Georgia took over at its own 19. On third down, blitzing linebacker Stephone Anthony stripped Murray, and fellow ‘backer Spencer Shuey wrestled the ball away at the bottom of the pile, giving Clemson possession at the UGA 16. Five plays later, Boyd bulled into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown and a 21-21 tie with 5:45 left in the half.
Clemson’s defense made huge strides; in the first 17 minutes of the half, UGA rolled up 265 yards of total offense.
That momentum carried over into the second half; Beasley came up with a huge sack of Murray, forcing the Bulldogs into a third and 33 inside their own 5.
The Tigers capitalized on excellent field position, taking over at their own 45. Moments after Boyd converted a fourth-and-1 at the 35 with a short pass to Charone Peake, Boyd found sophomore tailback Zac Brooks racing up the right flank for a 31-yard wheel route score.
Facing a fourth and 1 at its own 34, Georgia went for the gusto and flipped momentum back.
Undaunted, Clemson put together an 11-play, 68-yard drive covering 2:55.