CLEMSON — The unfortunate crime of the offseason is competitors can only make statements with their mouths.
Who: South Carolina State at Clemson
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
TV: ACC Network
As many times as Clemson football players and coaches could be asked about the mammoth possibilities laying before them, they kept pooh-poohing the outside hype.
If you were patient, you’d occasionally hear head coach Dabo Swinney or quarterback Tajh Boyd or some other supporting cast member make the simple counterargument: nobody’s expectations for the Tigers were higher than those of the Tigers themselves.
Finally, mercifully, delightfully, after months of anticipation, No. 5 Georgia stood across the field from No. 8 Clemson. One of those put-up-or-shut-up pop quizzes, which in college football is as rare in August as a final exam in fall semester.
Five touchdowns later, Boyd’s hyperbole was understated. But the significance of Saturday’s 38-35 triumph – making Clemson (1-0) the first non-SEC member in college football history to knock off top-ten SEC foes in consecutive cracks – wasn’t lost on the bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I think it was a good win,” Boyd said. “Nothing that we didn’t expect as a program, but I think it turned a lot of heads in the college football world. Very monumental win for this university, for this program, for the conference in general.”
So monumental the turbo-charged assembly of 83,830 orange-clad fans sang the “A-C-C!” chant to resound through Death Valley.
“From the time we got off the bus to the time we went out into the stadium, it was electric,” Swinney said. “It was a magical night in the Valley.”
Of course, Clemson’s goals are even higher than winning its conference, now that the Tigers have the highest-quality of wins to boast into September.
“Our guys were ready to go, that’s the bottom line,” Swinney said. “They were prepared, knew it was going to be a complete slugfest the whole way.
“I thought the character and toughness of our team was special. Just special.”
It was every bit as difficult as expected to end a five-game losing streak to historial rival Georgia (0-1), which gets no more time than the 70-mile bus ride back to Athens to lick wounds and prepare for SEC East nemesis South Carolina.
Tied at seven. Tied at fourteen. Tied at twenty-one. Tied at twenty-eight.
As tight as the Bulldogs and Tigers were perceived to be on paper, they were even closer in reality. The teams were never separated by two scores for the first 52-plus minutes, until Stanton Seckinger snuck in the corner pylon for a 9-yard score, accounting for Boyd’s fifth touchdown of the night, with 7:40 to play and a 38-28 lead.
Initially, the play was diagnosed a 7-yard gain, as the side judge ruled Seckinger stepped out of bounds. But when video review clearly showed the sophomore tight end’s right cleat never kissed white paint, it marked an eerie coincidence to bless one of the biggest nights in Clemson history.
See, before the game, former head coach Danny Ford was inducted into Clemson’s Ring of Honor. Ford oversaw the only national championship in school history in 1981.
Seckinger wears No. 81. It was his second career touchdown.
“I remember catching the ball, looking down and seeing the sideline, putting my foot down,” Seckinger said. “I was able to keep the ball inside the pylon, and when they called me out, I thought there’s no way. Luckily I was able to keep it in and they were able to review it.”
Ultimately, the three-point margin was due to a big-time gaffe by Georgia’s special teams late in the third quarter.
After Clemson cornerback Bashaud Breeland saved a touchdown with a horse-collar tackle of Chris Conley (which was flagged), Georgia had three goal-to-go chances to punch it in and take a 35-31 lead.
Rushing attempts by Keith Marshall, Todd Gurley and Quayvon Hicks were stonewalled. Forced to settle for three (and a tie), holder Adam Erickson couldn’t handle a slightly high snap, falling on the loose ball and surrendering all possible points.
“Momentum is a big thing, and that was a huge momentum play,” Swinney said. “Big boost for our guys. That turned out to be on of the deciding plays of the game, obviously.”
In the end, it came down to which star shone brighter in the spotlight. Whereas Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was just okay (but his running back was near-unstoppable), Boyd unleashed a resounding statement as one of the nation’s elite. Boyd completed 18-of-30 passes (including 10 in a row) for 270 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 42 yards and two more scores.
Of course, Boyd cares much less about winning individual trophies in December than he does team trophies in January. And with his effort, Clemson cleared a huge hurdle Saturday night in its quest for national championship contention.
“It puts us in a situation where we’re in the driver’s seat,” Boyd said. “This is a long season, it’s only the first one … but I’d much rather us be in the national championship race than me be a Heisman contender.”
The Tigers, planning on a committee of running backs, may have themselves a starter – even if he still refuses to admit it. Fifth-year senior Roderick McDowell busted out for 132 yards (previous career best: 86) on 22 carries, showing a penchant for tough runs between the tackles – a desperate need on a squad built for the perimeter.
“I don’t. I do not accept myself as the starting running back any day,” McDowell said.
“Yeah, when you’re hot, you’re hot. They keep feeding you. But I’ve got to have somebody else pushing me. All those boys push me 24/7.”
McDowell’s backup, Zac Brooks, did have a nifty 31-yard touchdown grab on a wheel route.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ 77-yard catch-and-run touchdown – trucking Georgia cornerback Damian Swann en route – was the first gain of 70 yards or more in the All-American career of Boyd and Watkins.
Although Watkins finished with 127 receiving yards, his cough-up on a fair catch attempt was the Tigers’ lone turnover on the night.
While four drops were attributed to Clemson receivers Watkins, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant (two), they each helped in some way. Peake’s 58 yards were a career standard, and Bryant easily hauled in Georgia’s last-minute onside kick to seal victory.
For all of Clemson’s explosiveness on offense, its defense cannot be forgotten. That maddeningly, delightfully inconsistent defense.
Try this on for size. Georgia’s first four drives: 267 yards, three touchdowns. Georgia’s next six drives: negative-eight yards, two turnovers.
“As a coach, you wish they could have nine drives in a row, but that’s not living in reality,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “It wasn’t East Popcorn State we just played. That’s Georgia. You gotta have perspective. But six drives in a row? That’s pretty good. That’s pretty good.
“Not that anybody’s tooting our horn – we’ve got a lot to be better at – but it says a lot about the character of our guys. It’s toughness, and focus, and resolve.”
To be fair, most of Georgia’s nasty second-quarter sequence was with sophomore tailback Todd Gurley nursing a strained quad on the sideline. As soon as he returned, so did Georgia’s rhythm.
Gurley, he of the 6.2-yards-per-carry freshman season, had a gorilla-like 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns (including a 75-yarder to open the Bulldogs’ scoring) on just 12 carries.
“I thought Gurley played a great game and ran the ball hard,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Unfortunately, he strained his quad and he wasn’t as effective as he was at the beginning of the game.”
Clemson’s pass rush was nonexistent in the first quarter, and Murray barely sweat in the pocket with room and time to operate. Fullback Quayvon Hicks scored from 1 yard out to give Georgia a 21-14 lead exactly 17 minutes into the contest, the Bulldogs’ third consecutive touchdown drive of longer than 70 yards.
Then, the Tigers’ played out of their skulls the next six drives, on which Georgia’s offense combined for negative-eight yards. Suddenly, Murray was harassed by a slew of linemen (Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett) and blitzers (Stephone Anthony, Tavaris Barnes), and forced into two momentum-swaying turnovers – a fumble recovered by Spencer Shuey and a Crawford interception.
“The playmakers gotta make plays,” Crawford said. “We all got together, and we said, ‘let’s blow up and get it done.’”
Florida State visits Death Valley Oct. 19. Clemson goes to rival South Carolina Nov. 30. The sky is suddenly the limit.
“Don’t crown us. Don’t bring the trophy around, because all we’ve done is won one game,” Swinney protested. “It’s a great win, it’s Clemson-Georgia, but … all we are is a 1-0 team, and in November, we’ll know a lot more.”
Clemson's Vic Bealsey, left center, and Corey Crawford sack Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in the third quarter of their NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 in Clemson, S.C.(AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)×