As Spencer Shuey knifed Orwin Smith into Memorial Stadium’s west end zone – right down into the turf – a shock wave of excitement shot through the 81,000 in attendance, from the Clemson sideline all the way up into the furthest reaches of the upper deck.
For three-plus quarters Saturday afternoon, the Tigers’ struggling defense had tried and tried and tried, and mostly failed to contain Georgia Tech’s flexbone option offense.
The junior linebacker’s impact play changed the conversation, and ultimately helped spark a fourth-quarter renaissance that swatted away the Yellow Jackets.
No.15 Clemson overcame an up-and-down day and scored the game’s final 17 points for a 47-31 win over Tech, improving to 5-1 on the season, 2-1 in ACC play heading into its open week.
“Confidence-wise, this will give (the defense) a big boost of momentum going into the next game,” said senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard. “We did the same thing at Boston College, giving up one touchdown in the second half. We’ve got to start and end that way, try and build a complete game. Right now we’re fighting to get through a complete game.”
It was good enough for Dabo Swinney’s second win in six tries against Georgia Tech and coach Paul Johnson – the opponent in his first game as interim head coach in 2008.
“This was a great win,” Swinney said. “A complete game. We won every quarter, including the fourth quarter. That’s where games are won. It was a similar situation as in Tallahassee a couple weeks ago against Florida State, where we didn’t win in the fourth. This week we did in all three phases.”
There were plenty of nervous faces in Death Valley, though, when David Scully’s 26-yard field goal gave Georgia Tech a 31-30 lead with 13:03 to play.
The Tigers had barely slowed the flexbone all night, and there were few signs they would now.
Clemson needed a response, and got it from DeAndre Hopkins and Tajh Boyd. On third and 4 from the 42, Boyd connected with Hopkins for a drive-extending slant.
Two plays later, he lofted a pass over safety Isaiah Johnson; Hopkins outleaped him for a 35-yard touchdown – his second of the game – and a 36-31 Clemson lead. An Ellington-to-Hopkins to Boyd throwback scored the two-point conversion and gave the Tigers a seven-point lead.
Boyd finished with a career-high 397 yards passing on 26-of-41 attempts, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, passing Charlie Whitehurst to set Clemson’s career passing touchdown record.
Hopkins caught seven passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
“When you’re a great receiver and you fight for the ball, it’s funny how the ball just comes to you,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “DeAndre made huge play after huge play. He turned plays that didn’t look like they were going anywhere and turned them into huge plays for the team.”
On the ensuing return, Tech returner Chris Milton slipped and bobbled the ball, pinning the Jackets at their own 2.
On the second play, Shuey blasted through for the Tigers’ first safety since 2008.
“It was one of the plays I’ve been preparing for all week,” he said. “We’ve been expecting it. I was able to get a good jump on the ball, make a good read and make a play.”
It was a major lift for a defense which badly needed one.
“That was huge. When I say it was huge, I mean it was huge,” Willard said. “That gave a momentum boost to everyone. If you watch it, watch the whole sideline. Everyone was up doing high-fives. Everyone was ready to go back out.”
A tip-drill interception off Sam Cooper’s hands gave Tech the ball back, but Clemson held again inside the red zone, and defensive tackle Josh Watson blocked Scully’s field goal try, sending Memorial Stadium into a frenzy.
“Coach (Dan) Brooks always harps on that play,” he said. “We went really hard on that Tuesday and Wednesday. He’s always telling us you never know when you’re going to get one. So you have to come 100 percent.”
Clemson simply wore down the Yellow Jackets, taking the final drive 13 plays and 80 yards in 5:26, with Rod McDowell’s one-yard run adding the final tally. Over the final 20 minutes, the Tigers put together their two longest drives of the season, with a 14-play, 90-yard drive late in the third quarter that wound up as a Chandler Catanzaro field goal.
Tech piled up 483 yards of total offense, but only 191 after halftime. And 75 of those yards came on its initial third-quarter possession.
“I thought our defense showed signs of growing up and maturity today,” Swinney said.
For the second consecutive week, practice featured live tackling, with plenty of the cut blocks that Tech’s option offense is famous for. Watson said the intensity level prepared Clemson for what lay ahead.
“There’s not many people who would’ve survived this week of practice,” Swinney said. “We challenged those guys every play, every period every practice. We paid a ton of attention to detail and sense of urgency. The guys responded with no complaints. They went to work and it paid off today.”
It wasn’t perfect, by any means. But paired with an offense that rolled up 601 yards on 93 plays, it was more than enough.
“It shows,” said senior tailback Andre Ellington, “that the sky’s the limit.”