Georgia Tech flirts with upset of Clemson, settles for encouraging loss

Georgia Tech quarterback Jordan Yates scrambles away from Clemson defenders Bryan Bresee (11) and Justin Foster (35) early in Saturday's game at Clemson. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech quarterback Jordan Yates scrambles away from Clemson defenders Bryan Bresee (11) and Justin Foster (35) early in Saturday's game at Clemson. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

CLEMSON, S.C. - Because it’s the only goal worth having, winning was Georgia Tech’s aim here Saturday.

Yeah, and I want to be People magazine’s 2021 Sexiest Man Alive.

And then have a footbridge named after me at Augusta National.

Let’s be frank. All the usual bottom-lining was not so much in play for the Yellow Jackets this day against this opponent. Their participation at Clemson would be measured by factors more subtle and ambiguous than that. And in the end, if they could step over the very low bar of avoiding embarrassment, then you’d just have to say this Saturday was pretty darn well spent.

More than just get over that faint accomplishment, the Jackets cleared it by a half mile. More than just hang with the Tigers - which would have been sufficient for most - Tech threw a mighty fright into the orange lords of the ACC.

No such thing as a moral victory you say. Well, then, how about this for a morale victory: Clemson just 14, Tech 8. The argument could be made that, in terms of raw encouragement, hanging so doggedly with Clemson, favored by 27½ points by the wise guys, ranks ahead of any of the seven victories Geoff Collins has masterminded in two-plus seasons.

“That team that played tonight can play with anybody,” Collins said of his guys. Go figure, it’s the same team, in name only, that lost the season opener to Northern Illinois. Tech fans may have themselves a whiplash lawsuit here.

Improbable as it seemed, Tech finished a skinny yard away from a touchdown that would have made a wild night way more interesting. Jordan Yates’ fourth-down shovel pass to Dylan Deveney was stuffed at the doorstep of the end zone, preserving the Tigers narrowest of victories.

Even then, Tech wasn’t done, Clemson fumbling into the end zone with seven seconds left, recovering, giving the Jackets two more points off the resulting safety.

A year ago, Tech found itself trailing 52-7 at the half against these Tigers. On Saturday, Tech was playing Clemson so tightly that the heavens grew dark and grumbled in disbelief, the game halted just before the end of the half for 1 hour and 53 minutes because of reports of nearby lightning. Down by four by the time the half played out, Tech was making a legitimate nuisance of itself. And it had just knocked 41 points off last year’s first-half deficit, a miracle weight loss that would stun even Oprah.

In some ways, playing the monster of the ACC and a team that had beaten Tech by a combined score of 125-21 the past two meetings is easier than any engagement with Northern Illinois. The Yellow Jackets could perform free of expectation, unleashed from any pressure that comes with the need of victory. Just persevere and try to show a little bit more on the road than in last season’s 73-7 loss at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Not so much to ask, really. All those minor demands were wildly surpassed.

Collins spends most games spinning hyperbole. This time it was deserved. “The attitude, the demeanor, the fight, the attention to detail, the willingness to compete toe-to-toe is what we need in this program. We’ve got to find the next step to win those kind of games against an opponent like this,” he said.

Save for getting the win, Tech satisfactorily answered many other questions.

Could Tech hold its water and hold onto the ball?

Playing before their largest audience since their last time here in 2019, the Jackets were quite composed all things considered. In fact, it was Clemson that committed the only turnovers of the game - a costly third-quarter fumble with it seemingly driving for a score and the fumble that led to the last-second safety.

With the long weather delay, Tech also caught a break, with maybe 60% of those who evacuated not returning to their seats when play resumed. Clemson, with the fair-weather fans weeded out, lost much of its home-field boost. The Tigers had to supply their own juice.

With Yates running the offense, could the Jackets manage anything positive against a Clemson defense that in two games had yet to give up a touchdown?

The Tigers still haven’t yielded that first touchdown. But Tech kept knocking on that door. And while not getting into the end zone, Yates may only have solidified his grasp on Tech’s starting quarterback job.

As much as any other trait that recommended Yates over incumbent quarterback Jeff Sims, it was the care he takes with the ball. Turning the ball over to Clemson is just the kind of catnip you can’t feed these Tigers. And on that account, Yates ran the show while muffing none of his lines. On Saturday he was a superb caretaker. In the future, against a less worldly defense, he will be even more of a play-maker.

“That’s one of the best defenses in college football. Really good players, really good scheme, but I thought our guys battled, fought, we had some really explosive plays that you don’t see often when you see them play,” Collins said. On Saturday, Tech outgained Clemson 309-284. It popped 10 plays of 10 yards or more against the stingiest of D’s. By comparison, Georgia had only five such plays in its victory over Clemson. Tech’s two field goals represented a relative scoring onslaught against Clemson - Georgia’s offense recorded only 3 points.

“I know the scoreboard didn’t show it, but the offense played really hard – of course, there are some plays we’d like back – but overall we’re showing improvement each week,” Yates said.

And having been overwhelmed by all those points and 671 yards a year ago, how would Tech’s defense respond?

Just look at the score. ‘Nuff said. An inventive Tech defense out-schemed Clemson and multiple turns.

You can’t spell redemption without the D, and Tech’s stepped up.

Tech flashed speed on offense and defense. Saturday was an initial glimmer of the Jackets gaining some ground on a gold-standard program. The bodies in their uniforms were closer in quality to those wearing Clemson orange than at any other time during the Tigers now seven-game win streak.

Clemson, its offense a shadow of what it was with Trevor Lawrence, clearly is not what it was a year ago.

And the good news for the Jackets, as demonstrated by a glossy, high-quality loss Saturday, neither is Tech.