The biggest football game Clemson University has hosted in decades more than lived up to its advance billing – with head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers earning their second straight statement victory over one of the powerful Southeastern Conference’s elite programs.

In fact Clemson embarked on an SEC-style 12-play, 87-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter to seal the deal – and prove the naysayers (us included) wrong.

The Tigers’ 38-35 win over No. 5 Georgia – coming on the heels of last year’s bowl victory over Louisiana State – gives No. 8 Clemson (1-0, 0-0 ACC) back-to-back wins over two of the best football programs in America. It also puts Swinney’s team squarely in the middle of the national championship conversation.

Meanwhile Georgia (0-1, 0-0 SEC) must regroup as it prepares to open its conference slate at home next week against sixth-ranked South Carolina.

In addition to the game, the Tigers won the much-hyped battle of Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks – with senior quarterback Tajh Boyd out-dueling Georgia’s Aaron Murray.

Boyd connected on 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns – with no interceptions. He also ran for 42 yards on 10 carries – including a pair of touchdowns (and numerous key conversions). His favorite target? Junior Sammy Watkins – who reminded Tiger fans of his 2011 All-American campaign with six receptions for 127 yards (including a 77-yard touchdown).

Boyd also outshone Murray in areas statistics don’t measure – like the numerous sacks he evaded with his strength and elusiveness.

Tajh Boyd dives for the end zone during the first half of Clemson's 35-31 win over Georgia. (Travis Bell Photography)
Tajh Boyd dives for the end zone during the first half of Clemson’s 38-35 win over Georgia. (Travis Bell Photography)

Murray completed 20 of 29 passes for 323 yards with no touchdowns and one interception – but was totally shut down by Clemson’s surprisingly resilient defense during a critical stretch of the game. He was also sacked four times.

After giving up touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the first half, coordinator Brent Venables’ unit bottled up Georgia on six consecutive drives – with the Bulldogs surrendering yardage and committing a pair of critical turnovers (one leading to a Tajh Boyd touchdown run).

Georgia was on the verge of getting nothing on a seventh straight drive early in the third quarter (and being run completely out of Death Valley) when a gutsy fake punt call from Bulldog head coach Mark Richt finally awakened his offense.

Moments later, though, a special teams miscue – an errant snap on a game-tying field goal attempt by Georgia – swung momentum back in Clemson’s favor.

The Tigers never looked back from that point … and when much-maligned wide receiver Martavis Bryant corralled an onside kick following a late Georgia touchdown, the biggest celebration Tigertown has seen in decades was on.

Clemson had mixed success against Georgia’s vaunted running back tandem. Despite missing several series due to a thigh injury, sophomore Todd Gurley ran for a career high 154 yards on twelve carries – scoring two touchdowns. Keith Marshall – the other half of the Bulldogs’ dynamic duo – didn’t fare so well, picking up only 43 yards on sixteen carries.

The big surprise of the game? Clemson’s potent ground attack – which was led by senior tailback Roderick McDowell. After waiting in the wings for several seasons, McDowell had the game of his career against the Bulldogs – racking up 132 yards on 22 carries.

Good for him … and good for Clemson. We honestly thought the Tigers’ big win over LSU in December was a fluke but at this point there’s no denying it: Clemson is for real.


Pic: Travis Bell Photography