CLEMSON — Here’s how Clemson coach Dabo Swinney summed up the margin for error in the Tigers’ 38-35 victory Saturday night over fifth-ranked Georgia:
“Games like these are always decided by five or six plays. We made them,” Swinney said just past midnight, after much of a crowd of 83,830 flooded the field in celebration.
Five plays? Here are the nominees, based on impact and timing, for how Clemson pulled off such a consequential season-opening victory.
First quarter: Sammy Watkins matches Todd Gurley in a “chunk play.” Gurley, the Bulldogs’ star tailback who grew up in Tarboro, burst through the Tigers’ defense, outrunning every tackler for a 75-yard touchdown. It was classically what football coaches call a “chunk play,” one that consumes dozens of yards and changes momentum.
On the first play of Clemson’s resulting possession, Watkins matched Gurley’s feat. He took a pass over the middle from quarterback Tajh Boyd and turned up-field, dodging and outrunning Georgia’s defenders for a 77-yard touchdown.
Second quarter: A strip-and-grip of quarterback Aaron Murray’s fumble. Clemson was down 21-14 and had to punt the ball back to Georgia, which took over at its 19. On third and 9, Tigers linebacker Stephone Anthony batted the ball out of Murray’s hands and fellow linebacker Spencer Shuey jumped on it, giving Clemson possession 16 yards from the end zone.
Five plays later, Boyd ran the ball in from the 2 for the tie. Shuey also had a team-high 12 tackles.
Second quarter: Off-setting turnovers. The Tigers like Watkins, their star receiver, returning punts and kickoffs, to give him additional opportunities for big plays. But late in the first half Watkins dropped a punt, giving Georgia back the ball on the Clemson 30. One play later, Tigers defensive end Corey Crawford dropped into coverage, intercepting a Murray pass to snuff out a promising Bulldogs drive.
Third quarter: Charone Peake’s second effort. On Clemson’s first possession of the second half, the Tigers faced a fourth and 1, 36 yards from the end zone. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris called a swing pass from Boyd to wide receiver Peake, who caught the ball short of the line of scrimmage. He dragged a defender 5 yards for the first down.
On the next play Boyd hit running back Zac Brooks in the corner of the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown.
Fourth quarter: “Hot Rod’’ McDowell’s rambling run. Ahead by three, Clemson needed another score and some possession time to keep the ball out of Murray’s hands. The Tigers had worked the ball to midfield, mostly on the ground. Boyd handed off to running back Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, not known for blazing speed.
McDowell found a hole behind right tackle, cut to the outside and weaved 36 yards to Georgia’s 6 to set up the Tigers’ final touchdown and a 10-point lead that proved decisive.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell