ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 29: Preston Lyons #27 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets jumps over J.C. Lanier #71 and Corico Hawkins #42 of the Clemson Tigers at Bobby Dodd Stadium on October 29, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Thirty-nine minutes. That's how long the Paul Johnson triple option attack was on the field. Couple that with four turnovers from an offense that continued to shoot itself in the foot all night and you have a recipe for disaster. It was mostly domination by the Yellow Jackets on both sides of the ball, and Clemson walked out of Atlanta with its first loss of the season. For Tiger fans, this loss is difficult to stomach, especially with the unprecedented run the Tigers were on. As we head into the bye week, it's time to get healthy (especially a guy like Ellington who was severally missed), regroup, and move on to the next one.
Both teams have tripped this season, but on Saturday night, Clemson took the harder fall. Considering Clemson’s infamous reputation for losing games it is expected to win, the Tigers’ letdown was actually less of a surprise than how well Georgia Tech played after dreadful performances in Coastal Division losses at Virginia and Miami. This wasn’t the same Georgia Tech team we’ve seen the past two weeks. It was arguably the most complete, convincing performance the Yellow Jackets have had all season, and it came against the best competition they’ll see this year.
There is little doubt how much we missed Ellington on the field tonight. When healthy, he's arguably the best back in the ACC. Problem is he hasn't truly looked healthy all year. On Saturday night, Clemson trotted two freshman backs out on the field, and both had big fumbles. Howard's turnover led to an easy Yellow Jacket touchdown, and Bellamy's fumble ended a drive in which Clemson was finally moving the ball and was within striking distance. This game was not squarely lost on their shoulders, but when you add those two turnovers with the two interceptions that Tajh threw, it's almost impossible to win a game, especially on the road against a good Georgia Tech team.
And the Tigers? They played like the Clemson of old for nearly three quarters. That's not a compliment. The Tigers, plus-9 in turnovers coming into the game, coughed up the ball four times Saturday night. Georgia Tech rebounded from two consecutive losses to beat Clemson 31-17 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"Turnovers get you beat, whether you play here or play at home," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "… We did not do the things that we've been doing well all year."
At this point, I'm not going to continue to beat a dead horse. It's over. Time to move on and focus on the next goal, winning this division. When we started this season we wanted to see significant improvement on the field from this program, and that has happened thus far. The next step is to get to Charlotte, and that can happen with a win over Wake Forest in two weeks. Wake Forest has a big game against Notre Dame this weekend, and then has to come into Death Valley against a pissed off Clemson team, on Senior Day, coming off a bye week. This game shouldn't and will not be pretty for the Demon Deacons. Just a bad bad spot for Jim Grobe's team.
Clemson's current grip on the ACC Atlantic Division shows what eight wins this early in the season can buy; the Tigers following a bye week can clinch a trip to the ACC championship game with a home win over Wake Forest.
The aspirations of a BCS title game birth are out the window, but it's really hard to be too upset about that coming off a 6-7 season. To get through almost two months of football without a loss is pretty damn impressive, and now there are only six unbeaten teams left in college football. Three games left for the Tigers and they are all winnable. Clemson gets Wake Forest at home off a bye week, a bad NC State team on the road, and ends the season with the Gamecocks in Columbia. Clearly at this point the last game is going to be the toughest. In the meantime, Clemson has a lot to work on, and it's hard to imagine teams won't be trying to exploit the weaknesses on this defense in the next few games.
For the majority of the season, Clemson's ability to score points in bunches and in a hurry had allowed the Tigers' leaky boat of a defense to stay afloat. As every new leak sprang, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and the Tigers' staff would attempt to plug it, while the offense bailed them out.
It happened against Wofford, Auburn and especially Maryland. The Tigers got their feet wet, but always made it to shore, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Not this time.
Saturday was frustrating, no doubt. You turn the ball over four times on the road and put the ball in the hands of a dangerous offense that can milk minutes and minutes of clock, and its hard to expect a victory. What this team learned Saturday is two things: 1) they aren't invincible and 2) they are going to get everyone's best shot, so if they don't bring their A game every weekend they will lose more football games.
This team must move past this loss. There is still a ton to play for with three regular season games left. Get guys healthy, put together a sound gameplan for Wake Forest, and a spot in Charlotte will be well within sight.