CLEMSON — It sounds surprising to say, yet completely true.
Entering Saturdays top-10 showdown between Clemson and Georgia, all of the hype all of the buzz surrounded the high-powered offenses on both sides. Tajh Boyd. Sammy Watkins. Aaron Murray. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
And while both sides traded their share of haymakers and pyrotechnics, what ultimately turned the tide in Clemsons 38-35 win?
Following some shaky moments early on, the Tigers much-maligned defense made the difference with a pair of key turnovers and several important stops, sending the mostly orange-clad crowd of 83,330 home happy with one of the programs biggest wins in recent memory.
It was just an awesome night, but it was just a start, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. What we were talking about in the locker room was that it was just a great start. Thats all weve done at the end of the day, accomplish our first goal, win the opener.
Weve got a long way to go. Our objective is to learn and grow from this, enjoy it now. Weve got a lot of corrections to make. Weve got to be better than we were tonight if we want to have the season we want to have.
No.8 Clemson (1-0) opened its season with a major step in its quest to make the BCS national title game, while No.5 Georgia (0-1) must regroup before next weeks visit from top-10 foe South Carolina.
Its real big. Well probably be ranked top 5 after tomorrow, said junior defensive end Corey Crawford. This is something for us to grow on, for the world to see Clemsons coming, for real.
Clemson yielded 545 yards of total offense, but the Tigers made plays that changed momentum and rattled Georgia just enough for the offense to provide breathing room with difference-makers of its own.
Were not a soft bunch, Crawford said. I know last year we had a couple of games that probably made it look like that but this year weve taken it upon ourselves to let everyone know were not soft. We just crunked things up. I dont know. We told ourselves were going to play with these boys, were fixing to stop them and thats what we did.
It was the Tigers second consecutive win over a top-10 SEC team, following the 25-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU. Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 17 of 29 passes for 254 yards and three scores, while senior tailback Rod McDowell had 22 carries for a career-high 131 yards.
A lot of people didnt think we could beat another top 10 SEC team in a row, Swinney said. Nobody has done that as a non-SEC team. Check that off the list now.
After both teams traded three-and-out series to begin the game, the evening turned into the celebration of offense most figured it would become.
Clemson hit first with a nine-play, 76-yard touchdown drive capped by Boyds four yard scamper untouched into the end zone, taking a 7-0 lead just over five minutes in.
Georgias answer was much quicker.
Sophomore tailback Todd Gurley took the ball around the right end and sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown, tying the game in just 12 seconds.
Not to be outdone, Clemson had a quick answer of its own.
Boyd found Sammy Watkins open in the right flat, and the speedy junior outraced a cadre of UGA defenders for a 77-yard touchdown that also covered 12 seconds, giving Clemson a 14-7 lead.
The Bulldogs bounced right back with a smash-mouth drive of their own, covering 75 yards and 11 plays over 4:46. Tailback Keith Marshall powered four yards, carrying safety Travis Blanks into the end zone on his back and tying the game at 14 with 4:12 left in the first quarter.
Clemson pinned the Bulldogs at their own 3, but that excellent field position quickly backfired.
On the first play of the drive, hulking fullback Quayvon Hicks burst 37 yards up the middle, digging Georgia out of the hole. He finished the drive with a one-yard bull up the middle, set up by Rantavious Wootens 34-yard catch-and-run over the right flank. Suddenly, Georgia had a 21-14 lead and momentum; Clemsons defense was on its collective heels.
A crucial defensive play changed that.
Midway through the second quarter, Georgia took over at its own 19. On third down, blitzing linebacker Stephone Anthony stripped Murray, and fellow backer Spencer Shuey wrestled the ball away at the bottom of the pile, giving Clemson possession at the UGA 16. Five plays later, Boyd bulled into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown and a 21-21 tie with 5:45 left in the half.
Clemsons defense made huge strides; in the first 17 minutes of the half, UGA rolled up 265 yards of total offense. In the final 13 minutes? 19.
That momentum carried over into the second half; Beasley came up with a huge sack of Murray, forcing the Bulldogs into a third and 33 inside their own 5.
The Tigers capitalized on excellent field position, taking over at their own 45. Moments after Boyd converted a fourth-and-1 at the 35 with a short pass to Charone Peake, Boyd found sophomore tailback Zac Brooks racing up the right flank for a 31-yard wheel route score.
Facing a fourth and 1 at its own 34, Georgia went for the gusto and flipped momentum back.
Punter Collin Barber rumbled for a fake punt, gaining five yards and extending the drive. Following a 38 yard catch-and-fumble recovered by the Bulldogs, Gurley re-tied the game with a 12-yard blast up the middle.
Undaunted, Clemson put together an 11-play, 68-yard drive covering 2:55; Boyds third and goal pass to Watkins went wide, but Chandler Catanzaro booted a 24-yard field goal for a 31-28 lead.
Georgia appeared on the verge of tying the game as the third quarter drew to a close. Chris Conleys 35-yard catch-and-run compounded by Bashaud Breelands penalty for a horse-collar tackle left UGA with a first and goal at the Clemson 5.
But the Tigers line stiffened, stuffing three consecutive runs.
Snapper Nathan Theus field goal snap went high, and holder Adam Erickson was forced to fall on the ball.
Sophomore tight end Stanton Seckinger provided the clinching score with 7:40 left, grabbing a nine-yard touchdown pass from Boyd. He was originally ruled out at the 2, setting up what would have been a fourth-and-goal at the 2. But replay showed hed hit the goal-line pylon with the ball; the call was reversed to a touchdown and 38-28 Clemson lead.
Murrays one-yard sneak cut the lead to 38-35 with 1:19 left, but Martavis Bryant recovered the onside kick, ending the Bulldogs hopes.