CLEMSON — The Clemson defense still gave up huge chunks of yardage and had difficulties defending Georgia Tech’s triple option.
But when Clemson needed a big play in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter, the Tigers’ defense responded with two key plays in their 47-31 win over the Yellow Jackets Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
A safety and blocked field goal put Clemson in control in the final quarter.
With the Yellow Jackets trailing 38-31, Georgia Tech running back Orwin Smith, who finished with 117 rushing yards, was tackled in Tech’s end zone by middle linebacker Spencer Shuey for a safety.
“Spencer played that to perfection,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “He trusted the guys on the perimeter and got into the backfield and made probably the biggest play of the game for us.”
After a Tajh Boyd interception, the Yellow Jackets again had a chance to cut into the Tigers’ lead midway through the fourth quarter. A key third down stop at the Clemson 20 forced a field goal attempt. But Clemson defensive lineman Josh Watson bulled his way into the backfield and deflected David Scully’s 37-yard kick.
“We pinched the guard and I was able to get through and get my hand on the ball,” Watson said.
Kevin Steele, Venables’ predecessor at defensive coordinator, was never able to figure out the Yellow Jackets option attack. While the Tigers still gave up 483 yards and Georgia Tech averaged 8.1 yards a play, Venables did see some improvement from the young Tiger unit.
“We’re not where we want to play, but I thought we took a step forward today,” Venables said.
Keeping drives alive and keeping the ball away from the Yellow Jackets’ offense was crucial for the Tigers.
They converted 13 of 19 on third-down plays as Clemson ran off 93 plays and held a slight advantage in time of possession — 32:01 to 27:59.
“Third down is something we’ve focused on all year,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “Third down is our money down and we’ve been pretty good on third down for the last coule of years. We take a lot of pride in third down.”
Boyd kept several drives alive with runs on third down.
“We knew they were going to drop eight guys into coverage on third down, so I was going to have to run the ball some,” Boyd said. “Give the guys up front credit, they did a good job of sustaining their blocks and giving me some room to run.”
Boyd threw two touchdown passes Saturday, giving him 51 and breaking Charlie Whitehurst’s mark of 49.
“You don’t go into games thinking about breaking records,” Boyd said. “It’s a nice record to have it, but that’s what this offense is set up to do, break records.”
Boyd, who also ran for a TD, is responsible for 59 touchdowns during his career, tying him with Whitehurst for second most in school history. Former Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler has the school mark with 68 TDs.
Boyd finished with 397 yards passing and 63 rushing for 460 total yards. Only Dantzler had more yards — 517 yards against N.C. State in 2001 — in a game than Boyd. Boyd is also third in school history with 5,905 passing yards. Dantzler is second with 6,037.
The last two weeks, the Tigers’ major point of emphasis has been tackling.
On Tuesday and Wednesday in each of the last two weeks, the Tigers practiced with live tackling, which is almost unheard of in college football these days.
Overall, Venables said he saw some improvement, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“We’re making some progress,” Venables said. “There was still some disgusting plays out there and missed tackles, but I think it helped. It’s a risk you take going live during practice because of injuries, but I think it’s helping.”
Tight end Brandon Ford left the game in the first half with a foot injury and did not return.
Linebacker Lateek Townsend did not dress because of a thigh injury.
Cornerback Bashaud Breland suffered a mild foot sprain, but should be OK, coach Dabo Swinney said.