On a rainy night in Clemson, a superior team and ‘the pucker factor’

CLEMSON, S.C. – There were no laments of falling short by one play this time.

As has become the dreary reality in the Georgia Tech-Clemson series over the past three seasons, one team has the might, speed and playmaking expertise to compete for and win national championships and the other team does not.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s orange-tinted football machine has modified what was for a long time an electrifying and dramatic rivalry into a one-sided affair. This isn’t to say that Tech had absolutely no chance to beat the Tigers on a rainy Saturday night in Memorial Stadium. But, rest assured, if the teams were to play 10 times, it wouldn’t be 5-5.

“They’re really physical, they’re fast and they’re one of the best defenses for a reason,” B-back KirVonte Benson said. “They play hard off the ball, they run hard, they gang tackle. They do a lot of things that a coach expects the defense to do. Just matching their intensity was going to be a challenge for us.”

The 24-10 defeat to the No. 7 Tigers bore more than a passing resemblance to the Jackets’ 26-7 loss to Clemson last year, and not only because of the score. Last year, the Tigers came tearing out of the gate, chopping up the Tech defense for seemingly easy touchdown drives on their first and third possessions of the game for a 14-3 lead. Saturday, Clemson claimed the same 14-3 margin by hydroplaning for touchdowns on the first and third times with the ball.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s crew has generally acquitted itself well in the first quarter; the Jackets had given up only 17 first-quarter points prior to Saturday. But in the same way that Tech opponents often have trouble on defense getting adjusted to the speed of Tech’s offense, the Jackets appear to have trouble with Clemson off the bat before gaining their bearings. In 2015, Tech was down 10-0 less than four minutes in and 17-3 before the first quarter was over.

“Going into the game, in practice, we don’t get the exact look of what we really want to get, so in the game, the first couple of series, we really have to adjust to the game, so it’s an adjustment,” defensive end KeShun Freeman said.

After pushing out to fairly safe halftime leads – 21-3 Saturday night and 23-0 last year – Clemson slowed down in the second half, in both games scoring just a field goal in the final two quarters. The Jackets were more effective with the ball in their hands Saturday – 230 yards of offense and 4.1 yards per play, compared to 124 yards and 2.4 yards per play last year – but it was almost immaterial. The difference between the two teams was clear.

“Clearly, it didn’t go the way we would have liked,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I think that Clemson has a really good football team, and we didn’t play very well.”

Johnson lamented missed option reads by quarterback TaQuon Marshall and missed assignments by the offensive line. Johnson said that, prior to a screen pass to wide receiver Ricky Jeune on a third-and-9 that resulted in a six-yard loss, Marshall called two different plays in the huddle, which resulted in the line setting up to block on the side of the field opposite Jeune.

“I can’t explain it,” Johnson said. “But I think sometimes when you’re playing big, fast guys, the pucker factor comes in and you just, for whatever reason, you (make mistakes).”

As Johnson pointed out multiple times in the past week, Tech isn’t the only team that Clemson treats this way. Since the start of the 2015 season, Clemson is now 35-3 and has won 14 of 22 ACC regular-season games by 14 points or more.

Clemson has a capable defensive coordinator in Brent Venables and is stocked with NFL-grade defensive linemen and swift and agile linebackers and defensive backs capable of discharging his schemes. As was the case the past two years, they took advantage of Tech mistakes (along with simply defeating blocks) to wreak havoc in the Jackets backfield and create tackles for loss (11 in just 56 plays) and dumped Tech in second- and third-and long situations, which were not tenable.

Offensively, it was a similar story. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant threw accurately from a safe pocket, completing 10 of his first 11 passes. On run plays, he and the Tigers running backs were elusive and ran behind a line that defeated Tech defenders at the point of attack.

To Tech’s credit, Clemson’s 24 points tied for its second-lowest scoring output of the season. The Tigers punted seven times, tied for their high of the season.

“Defensively, we missed a ton of tackles and gave up some big plays to dig ourselves a hole,” Johnson said. “Actually, played decent in the second half on defense, but we were so far behind it really didn’t matter.”

Tech could have played much better and made the game more competitive. But the game’s outcome began to be cast in the first few minutes, when Benson’s lost fumble was converted into a Clemson touchdown just two plays later. Barely two minutes into a game where the Jackets needed to play at the top of their game, they had already spotted the Tigers a 7-0 lead. On a night when the conditions and the environment were not helping their cause, the Jackets gave the Tigers an unneeded head start and followed it up with uninspired play.

“I really don’t think I got too settled in,” Marshall said. “I was kind of all over the place at the beginning of the game. I settled down more in the second half, but I really can’t tell you (what caused the problems). I let the team down.”

Tech will beat Clemson again, perhaps on a day with better conditions when the Tigers starting quarterback leaves the game with an ACL tear and the Jackets return two interceptions for touchdowns, as was the case in 2014. It probably wouldn’t hurt if Clemson weren’t coming off its open week, as it was Saturday.

But it’s the reality of the situation – one team at the very top of college football, the other a tier or two below. Virginia comes up next. Losing handily to Clemson doesn’t have to be a condemnation. After taking its own beating from Clemson September 30, Virginia Tech has steamrolled through Boston College, North Carolina and Duke. If it serves as a reminder of how much better the Jackets can play, at least something will have been salvaged from a wet and chilly night.

“We knew coming here that we were going to face a strong team,” Freeman said. “We were going to have to really play with our best and (Saturday), we didn’t execute all the time well, but we continue to stay strong.”

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