A year after beating Georgia Tech 73-7 on the road, No. 6 Clemson needed a goal-line stand to escape with a 14-8 victory over the Yellow Jackets at home on Saturday. The narrow victory, delayed by severe weather in the area, showcased both the brilliance of the Clemson defense, which has yet to allow a touchdown through three games, and the ineptitude of its offense, which failed to reach 300 total yards.
A prime example of Clemson's offensive shortcomings came in the final seconds when, in the shadow of his own goal posts, freshman running back Will Shipley was stopped for a safety as he fumbled the football into his own end zone. The Tigers were forced to kick the ball back to Georgia Tech with seven seconds remaining, giving the Yellow Jackets a final chance to pull what would have been a stunning upset.
The desperation effort fell short, but the unexpectedly close game exposed the chasm between where Clemson is ... and where it hopes to be at the end of the season. The chief concern is an offense that played uninspired football against the very opponent it torched last season. Sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei completed 18-of-25 passes for just 126 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, while the Tigers struggled to generate momentum in the run game.
Had it not been for the late goal-line stand, Clemson could have been facing overtime. Its defense has been stellar and clearly played the larger role in advancing the Tigers to 2-1 on the season.
Shipley scored the game's only two touchdowns on the ground, marking Clemson's first touchdowns against a FBS opponent this season, but the Yellow Jackets bottled up the talented freshman for much of the afternoon. However, Clemson's defense looks so good that it may be able to carry the Tigers through a weak ACC while the offense figures things out.
Here's what we learned from Saturday's close call ...
James Skalski's stand
Clemson led 14-3 after Shipley scored with 8:12 remaining in the game. It seemed like the Tigers had finally created the necessary separation to enjoy a drama-free finish. But with the Tigers sitting back in a conservative defense, the Yellow Jackets managed to dink and dunk their way down the field for a field goal with 1:19 remaining. Georgia Tech recovered an onside kick, and with the help of a roughing the passer penalty, made its way to the red zone in the final minute. The Yellow Jackets had a first-and-goal from the 3-yard-line, but never found the end zone as the Clemson defense stiffened in the clutch. The ultimate hero of the Tigers' stand was sixth-year senior linebacker James Skalski, who stayed at home on a fourth-down shovel pass.
The Tigers put up 671 total yards in their rout of Georgia Tech last season, 500 of which came through the air with a passing attack led by quarterback Trevor Lawrence and receiver Amari Rodgers. With both now playing in the NFL, it's clear Clemson is still looking for an aerial identity. Junior receiver Justyn Ross is back from injury and surpassed 2,000 career receiving yards on Saturday as he caught seven passes for 61 yards. He and fellow junior Joseph Ngata are a talented duo on the outside, but the Tigers are struggling to generate explosive plays. Their longest play from scrimmage was just 17 yards on a pass to running back Kobe Pace. Clemson didn't allow a sack on Saturday, so it's hard to pin the struggles on the offensive line. But it's clear the Tigers need to turn things around in the passing game.
For all the doom and gloom surrounding the Clemson offense, there is plenty to love about the defense. The unit is playing like a group out to prove a point after it allowed 49 points against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal loss last season. Through three games, the Tigers are allowing just 267 yards per game. That mark is significantly better than the ACC-best 326.8 yards per game it gave up last season. The Tigers were especially stingy against the run on Saturday, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry to the Yellow Jackets.