ATLANTA—After getting much of the blame for a disappointing season by Clemson standards, DJ Uiagalelei needed good things to happen in the season opener.
With one whirling dervish of a play, the quarterback showed why the Tigers still have plenty of faith in him.
Uiagalelei threw for one touchdown and ran for another, overcoming a sluggish start in the season opener as No. 4 Clemson pulled away for a 41–10 victory over Georgia Tech on Monday night.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came in the third quarter, when Uiagalelei was cornered by two Georgia Tech defenders and appeared headed for a sack on third–and–4.
But he twisted around and managed to stay upright just long enough to flip a lateral to Shipley, who rumbled 10 yards to keep the Clemson offense on the field.
“I was trying to get out of the pocket, trying to buy some time to get the ball away,” Uiagalelei said. “As I was going to the ground I looked to my left and saw Shipley there. I just pitched it to him. He made a great run.”
For coach Dabo Swinney, that’s the kind of play the Tigers need to make to reclaim their place atop the Atlantic Coast Conference, as well as get back to the College Football Playoff.
“That was a play we didn’t make last year,” Swinney said. “That’s just his strength, his grit, where he’s at physically. Just find a way, man. He’s got some creativity to him.”
Sparked by that play, the Tigers drove 74 yards for a touchdown that finally buried the Yellow Jackets. Uiagalelei ran it in from 9 yards out to push Clemson’s lead to 24–10.
Uiagalelei completed 19 of 32 passes for 209 yards, including a 6-yard scoring play to Beaux Collins that gave the Tigers a two-touchdown lead in the first half.
Georgia Tech, looking to improve on three straight three-win seasons that have coach Geoff Collins on the hot seat, kept it closer than expected much of the way.
But the Yellow Jackets couldn’t overcome two blocked punts, both of which led to short touchdown runs by Will Shipley.
It was the first time since 2007 that Clemson has blocked two punts in a game.
“We’ve got to get that fixed. Those things cannot happen,” Collins said. “Very disappointing.”
Georgia Tech pulled to 14–10 with an impressive drive in the third quarter, culminating with Jeff Sims tossing a 13-yard TD pass to 6-foot-7 transfer E.J. Jenkins.
Both teams struggled offensively until Clemson got its first blocked punt.
Carson Donnelly broke through the line untouched and smothered the ball. Brannon Specter scooped up the ball at the Georgia Tech 18 and took it down the 5 before he was knocked out bounds, setting up Shipley’s 1-yard TD run on fourth-and-goal.
Sims threw an interception on Georgia Tech’s first play of the season, an ill-advised deep pass while under pressure that was picked off by Andrew Mukuba.
The Yellow Jackets’ third-year quarterback is considered a key to the team’s chances of a turnaround season, and he showed flashes both throwing and running
It wasn’t nearly enough to pull off the upset. Sims finished with 164 yards passing and led the team in rushing with 41 yards.
The second Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game of the Labor Day weekend was played before a crowd at 47,712 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the upper deck was closed off to prevent it from looking like a Clemson home game.
As it was, at least half the crowd appeared to be decked out in orange.
Highly touted freshman Cade Klubnik got a big cheer from what was left of the Clemson crowd when he came in at quarterback with the victory secured.
Klubnik led the Tigers to their final touchdown on his only possession, completing 4 of 6 passes 49 yards including a 3-yard score to Will Taylor.
“That’s the most important position in football,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to have guys who can go in.”
Clemson: Coming off a 10–3 season, this team still appears to be a work in progress.
For the first time in Swinney’s 14 full seasons as coach, Clemson is breaking in two new coordinators, so it might take a while to get everyone on the same page.
The Tigers certainly don’t appear to be at the same level as Southeastern Conference powerhouses Alabama and Georgia.
Georgia Tech: Collins appears to have done little to correct some familiar problems that plagued his first three years in Atlanta.
There were far too many penalties, including a host of false starts, an unnecessary pass interference penalty that extended a drive when the Yellow Jackets had momentum, and a targeting call that led to the ejection of Charlie Thomas.
And, of course, two blocked punts are inexcusable.
Clemson will probably stay about where it is in The Associated Press rankings after pulling away to make the final score in the expected range.
Clemson: Takes on Furman, a member of the FCS Southern Conference, in its home opener Saturday. It’s a short trip for the Paladins, whose campus is about 35 miles from Death Valley.
Georgia Tech: Plays its campus opener Saturday when another Southern Conference team, Western Carolina, visits Bobby Dodd Stadium.
By Paul Newberry