CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Georgia football passed a major test Saturday night with the nation looking on, finding a way past a Clemson program that hadn’t lost back-to-back in nearly 10 years over a span of 127 games.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs slugged it out with the No. 3-ranked Tigers to score a 10-3 decision in what was only the fourth meeting of Top 5 teams in a season-opening game since 2000.
RECAP: Breaking down the scoring, injuries from 10-3 win over Clemson
RELATED: Kirby celebrates “electric” win over Clemson
“It’s definitely a big game for the program,” said Christopher Smith, who scored the only touchdown in the game, a 74-yard interception return in the second quarter that staked Georgia out to a 7-0 lead.
“We’d been looking forward to it.”
The Bulldogs’ defensive front was as ferocious as advertised, sacking Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei seven times while stuffing the Tigers run game to the tune of 2 yards on 23 carries.
Georgia’s pass attack never took flight against a veteran Clemson defense featuring 11 returning starters, but the run game got tough enough in the clutch to power the Bulldogs through to the historic win.
Here’s a look at one set of position grades after the victory:
JT Daniels was little more than efficient completing 22 of 30 passes for 135 yards with one interception. A veteran Clemson defense caught Daniels and OC Todd Monken off guard by dropping eight into coverage while also generating just enough of a pass rush. Daniels got rid of the ball quickly and avoided negative plays, sacked only once.
RELATED: JT Daniels happy with win, but not offensive execution
Running backs (B)
The Georgia backs were the most consistent offensive unit and came through with three short third-down conversion runs on the final drive to drain the clock and secure the victory. Zamir White ran inspired with 74 yards on 13 carries, including a 22-yard burst. White fumbled early, but recovered. Kendall Milton was effective, seemingly one tackle away from breaking a long run to finish with 27 yards on 6 carries. James Cook was reliable catching all four targets. Kenny McIntosh had a clutch 9-yard first down catch and run.
The Georgia receivers looked overmatched by the Clemson secondary, unable to get separation and less than adequate with downfield blocks. Freshman H-Back/Tight end Brock Bowers was the most reliable target with 6 catches for 43 yards. Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Ladd McConkey shared honors among the receivers with 2 catches for 12 yards. Jermaine Burton had just 2 catches for 11 yards and missed key blocks. A Justin Robinson hold wiped out a first-down run. UGA was missing four key receivers.
Offensive Line (C)
It was a tough assignment, but Georgia has recruited enough talent that more could be expected. Senior Justin Shaffer had a costly hold that negated a pass interference call that would have put UGA on the door step to the goal line. Shaffer also had a false start, as did Xavier Truss. Veteran Jamaree Salyer was whistled for being an illegal man downfield. The O-Line played just well enough to get the win.
Defensive Line (A+)
Georgia’s front dominated with Jordan Davis, Travon Walker, Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith recording sacks. Devonte Wyatt was also a force with 3 tackles and a pass break-up. Rush lanes were non-existent and Clemson’s QB was under pressure all night.
Nakobe Dean had two sacks and five tackles and was overall very strong, but he also sustained a drive with a pass interference and missed an open-field tackle that would have ended another Clemson drive. Adam Anderson managed 5 tackles and a sack despite being ID’d on every play. Anderson’s sack off the edge had NFL scouts drooling, as did his backside pursuit. Channing Tindall had a strong effort with 3 stops.
RELATED: Nakobe Dean back in the groove for Bulldogs defense
Christopher Smith’s 74-yard Pick-6 was the oil painting moment, but veteran safety Lewis Cine had a special night with nine stops and two pass break-ups. Latavious Brini had a key PBU in the end zone and played big in the run game with 4 tackles. Derion Kendrick was sticky all night, aside from the late 44-yard pass he got beat on. Kelee Ringo had two pass interference penalties and had his hands full, as did veteran Ameer Speed who also drew a flag. Still, the corners proved up to the challenge when Clemson took its shots, holding the Tigers to their fewest points of the Dabo Swinney Era.
RELATED: Christopher Smith earns DawgNation ‘Game Ball’ with Pick-6
Special Teams (B-)
Jake Camarda was incredible, to the extent of being one of the hidden heroes in the win with four punts inside the 20. Jack Podlesny’s 36-yard field goal miss was a big one, helping to allow Clemson to stay in the game. The muffed punt was also a costly moment -- there’s a better way to play that style kick. Return game was adequate with Kenny McIntosh and Kearis Jackson, but not great.
Coach Kirby Smart made some defensive adjustments in the offseason that enabled his defense to make plays and avoid costly breakdowns, simplifying the scheme and emphasizing execution. The Georgia defense was supremely prepared, seemingly in the Clemson offensive huddle, a step ahead of Swinney. Monken, meanwhile, wisely protected his quarterback and found ways to get his players in space. Georgia skill players had opportunities to make plays, but it’s up to them to break tackles at the secondary level.
Georgia needed a win against an annual national championship contender like Clemson to validate the success the program is building under Kirby Smart. The coaching preparation and in-game adjustments were key, UGA out-maneuvering a proven Clemson staff featuring continuity. Football is a game of match ups, and Georgia showed the poise to take what the Tigers were giving and not get rattled when Clemson made plays and things could have gone off the rails.