CLEMSON – Howard’s Rock, vandalized in June, was “GameDay” shiny.
A once divided Clemson Nation stood united Saturday night to cheer for former head coach Danny Ford, finally inducted into the Ring of Honor.
The current Tigers came through for past, present and future. Underdogs against the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs, No. 8 Clemson put polish and hard-nosed emphasis on a 38-35 victory.
“We had to stand our ground and show the work that we put in all summer,” Clemson left tackle Brandon Thomas said.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd ran Chad Morris’ offense with flair. A suspect defense seized the big stage occasion with sacks and stops.
“This whole camp we’ve preached ‘Dominant defense,’” cornerback Gary Peters said. “We wanted to come in and show people we’ve gotten better as a whole. Defense is toughness.”
It’s a long way to Pasadena, almost as long to late November in Columbia.
But stoke those national championship fires, go ahead.
No doubt, the show matched the hype.
Boyd and Sammy Watkins connected on a 77-yard touchdown play in the first quarter one snap after Georgia’s Todd Gurley scored on a 75-yard run and the loudest little town in the South had the nation’s attention.
Then Clemson answered every Georgia punch.
Thanks, Lee Corso
Orange stars began aligning for the Tigers early Saturday morning.
First, a nice Blue Ridge helping of motivation: The somewhat great Lee Corso teased the sea of fans gathered for “GameDay” before picking Georgia.
Sure, designated guest picker Eric Stonestreet picked Clemson.
But … Eric Stonestreet? If you don’t watch “Modern Family” you wouldn’t know Eric Stonestreet from Kirk Herbstreit (So many guest picker options - Bill Murray, C.J. Spiller, Nikki Haley, Nancy O’Dell, Bart Simpson – such a whiff).
Then a pre-game ceremony in which Clemson pulled out all the stops.
Along with the Ford fest, they brought in national championship quarterback Homer Jordan and Georgia-killer kicker David Treadwell as honorary captains.
Georgia tried to work with Clemson early as Gurley and starting wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell went out with injuries.
But Gurley returned. Wow, did he, looking like Herschel Walker with big thighs and large gains he rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Barring injury, the former Clemson recruit looks like one of the nation’s top Heisman Trophy contenders.
“Gurley’s a beast, I’m not going to lie,” Peters said. “I really like Gurley and (Keith) Marshall. They will play in the NFL one day. But at the end of the day, a team effort overcomes all of that.”
Old-school toughness was on display in the second quarter with big sacks by Stephone Anthony and Vic Beasley.
It’s a nice trend going here for Clemson. Whether there was carry-over from the Chick-fil-A Bowl upset of LSU or not, the first back-to-back victories over top 10 ranked SEC teams by a non-conference foe smells better to Tiger fans than fried chicken sandwiches.
“(It proves) we can play against anybody,” Thomas said. “That’s how we feel as a team. The win is great, but now we focus on the next opponent.”
The stakes were every bit as high for Georgia.
The Bulldogs failed miserably in their last two openers against good teams. The Bulldogs lost at Oklahoma State (24-10) in 2009 and to Boise State (34-21) in a 2011 game in Atlanta.
Fortunately for Gurley and pals, next week’s home game against No. 6 South Carolina is part of a schedule ripe with redemption opportunities.
For Clemson, chalk up a bit of ACC pride during a in which North Carolina (South Carolina), Virginia Tech (Alabama) and Syracuse (Penn State) lost high-profile non-conference games.
“Our job as coaches,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, “is to keep our guys humble and keep our guys hungry.”
The Tigers won one for Danny Ford, and Homer Jordan, and David Treadwell.
They won for themselves, and the population explosion that took over Clemson early Saturday. They still haven’t stopped partying.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff