Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) reacts after stopping Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas for a loss in the first half of Thursday’s game in Atlanta. an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) John Bazemore AP
Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) reacts after stopping Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas for a loss in the first half of Thursday’s game in Atlanta. an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) John Bazemore AP

College Sports

Clemson defense dominates Georgia Tech in Atlanta

By Rick Bonnell

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com

September 22, 2016 10:52 PM

UPDATED September 23, 2016 02:21 AM

ATLANTA

Thirteen years is a long time in Clemson football.

The Tigers went that span between road victories against Georgia Tech. Thursday night, playing to a national audience, fifth-ranked Clemson stuffed the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense for a 23-0 halftime lead. That became a 26-7 victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Clemson’s defense was so dominant that three of Georgia Tech’s first four possessions ended in negative yardage. Early in this one, the Yellow Jackets got into frequent third-and-long situations and their offense is ill-equipped to deal with that.

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The Tigers (4-0) lost a lot on the defensive side of the ball from last year’s team, including two defensive ends who were early NFL draft picks. But there were talented replacements that make the defensive line a clear strength this season.

Offensively, Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback DeShaun Watson, who has had an uneven performance early this season, controlled the game from the start, when Clemson drove 75 yards for a touchdown (Watson-to-Mike Williams 4-yard pass).

Georgia Tech didn’t score until early in the fourth quarter, aided by an offside penalty and pass interference against Clemson. Running back Dedrick Mills ran it into the end zone from 2 yards.

The Tigers will next play a huge game, hosting third-ranked Louisville on Oct. 1 at Death Valley.

Dabo Swinney on winning at Georgia Tech

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney comments on Thursday's victory in Atlanta.

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com

Three who mattered

Watson: He threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and ran for another 27 yards.

Brent Venables: Clemson’s defensive coordinator drew up a game plan that stifled Georgia Tech’s offense throughout the first half.

Ray-Ray McCloud: He had seven catches for 90 yards in the first half.

Observations

▪ Watson recently criticized himself for not having a better attitude this football season. He sure looked sharp on that first drive, completing all five of his passes, including a touchdown connection with Williams.

▪ Georgia Tech’s net yardage off its first two drives: Minus-8.

▪ Defending against Georgia Tech’s option offense requires disciplined assignment football. Clemson seemed very good at that Thursday.

▪ The referees reversed a call that Clemson had lateraled on a Watson throw into the flat, which would have resulted in lost yardage. It was an obvious forward pass.

▪ Clemson was credited with a safety on an end zone interception of Watson. The defensive back came out of the end zone, lost the ball and recovered back in the end zone.

Worth mentioning

▪ By halftime, Clemson had outgained Georgia Tech in total yardage 347 to 22.

▪ Georgia Tech seemed determined to limit rushing by Clemson’s Wayne Gallman. So Watson threw 27 passes in the first half.

▪ Clemson’s one flaw in the first half might have been kicking. Greg Huegel missed a 27-yard field goal and a kickoff roled out of bounds rather than reaching the end zone.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell