Coach Dabo Swinney implored people to buy all the Clemson football stock “you freakin’ can buy” following the team’s upset of No. 12 Notre Dame last weekend.
Quarterback Cade Klubnik was efficient, a quartet of true freshmen made key plays and running backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah once again combined for a fearsome one-two punch as Clemson cruised past Georgia Tech and moved to 6-4 and 3-4 in the ACC, with a strong finish to the season and solid bowl game still within reach.
With wins against No. 24 North Carolina and rival South Carolina over the next two weeks, the former at home and the latter on the road, the reigning ACC champion Tigers could finish 8-4 and 4-4 in the ACC after a tumultuous 4-4 start to 2023.
Such consistency’s been rare all season. But after soundly beating a ranked Fighting Irish team at home last week, Clemson played another four quarters of complementary football and emerged with another decisive win over Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3 ACC), a much improved team from years past under coach Brent Key.
After trailing 7-0 early, Clemson scored 42 unanswered points including touchdowns on three straight first half possessions and got big games from Klubnik (205 passing yards, four TDs), Mafah (115 total yards) and Shipley (107 total yards) on offense.
Freshman receiver Tyler Brown also had the play of the day with a one-handed touchdown grab that went viral amid Clemson’s ninth straight win over Georgia Tech, which also formally clinched bowl eligibility for the Tigers.
Defensive backs Khalil Barnes, Avieon Terrell, Kylon Griffin and Shelton Lewis took turns intercepting dynamic Georgia Tech dual-threat quarterback Haynes King to lead a comprehensive defensive effort against one of the nation’s top offenses.
The Yellow Jackets entered averaging 465.3 yards of total offense, No. 2 in the ACC and No. 14 nationally, but only managed 254 against defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin’s unit, which was once again playing without a few key guys because of injury, including starting linebacker Barrett Carter.
Clemson was an early punchline during Saturday’s slate of noon games after attempting a bizarre first quarter fake punt deep in its own territory.
On fourth and 9 from their own 21, the Tigers turned it over on downs when punter Aidan Swanson took the snap, hesitated for a split second and ran for a loss of four.
That set up Georgia Tech, which closed as a 14.5-point underdog, to take an early 7-0 lead on a short rushing touchdown by Haynes King, the dynamic dual threat QB transfer from Texas A&M.
But that’s all the Yellow Jackets got in the first half as Clemson, playing at home for its annual Military Appreciation Day, put together an excellent first half.
With balance and poise and some timely aggression, the Tigers scored touchdowns on three straight first half possessions without a turnover and allowed zero points after Georgia Tech’s short-field touchdown drive – set up by the failed fake punt – in the first quarter.
Klubnik hit wide receiver Beaux Collins for a 20-yard gain on fourth and 7 and running back Phil Mafah converted a fourth and 1 on the ground to set up the team’s first touchdown, a back-shoulder touchdown toss from Klubnik to Collins, one of his favorite targets.
Freshman receiver Tyler Brown made it two scores in a row with his SportsCenter Top 10-worthy one-handed touchdown grab from Klubnik, and running back Will Shipley (back healthy after a one-game absence for head/neck injury concerns) ran in a 32-yard touchdown to put Clemson up 21-7 late in the first half.
Clemson was a combined 4-4 on fourth downs on those three touchdown drives – an impressive mark for an offense that’s struggled with ball security in short yardage situations and execution in general.
No turnovers were also a huge plus, as Clemson recorded its longest scoring drive of the season in terms of yardage (92 yards) and the longest scoring drive in school history in terms of time (9 minutes, 51 seconds).
Georgia Tech had its first lead on longtime ACC rival Clemson since 2014 after going up 7-0 early. But the Yellow Jackets only crossed midfield once in the first half and didn’t get much out of King, who entered ranking top 10 nationally in total yards per game but was 2-7 for 1 passing yard and interception in the first half.
Freshman defensive back and rising star Khalil Barnes intercepted King with under a minute remaining in the first half, giving Clemson a shot at more points, but kicker Jonathan Weitz’s 47-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter got blocked by Georgia Tech.
An impressive run of complementary football continued into the third quarter. After Klubnik’s 5-yard TD pass to tight end Jake Briningstool put Clemson up 28-7, the Tigers were out-gaining Georgia Tech 335-88 in total yards and 20-4 in first downs.
Even a Klubnik interception couldn’t dampen the Tigers’ spirits; after the sophomore QB gave the ball away for the first time Saturday, true freshman cornerback Avieon Terrell got it right back by intercepting King, the Georgia Tech quarterback, with one hand down the left sideline.
Following Griffin’s interception to start the fourth quarter, Klubnik threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day to reserve tight end Josh Sapp (35-7). And Lewis kept it going with 46-yard interception return touchdown off King, making him the third Clemson true freshman defensive back to record a pick in the game (42-7).
Georgia Tech finally stopped the bleeding early in the fourth quarter with two garbage-time touchdowns, primarily against a mix of Clemson backups and third-stringers, but couldn’t muster anywhere close to enough points to earn its first win in Death Valley since 2008.
Next Clemson game
Who: No. 24 North Carolina at Clemson
When: 3:30 p.m. next Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium in Clemson