Victory over Clemson left Georgia coach Kirby Smart leaping

CHARLOTTE — After No. 5 Georgia put the finishing touches on its win over No. 3 Clemson and the Bulldogs started to file out of Bank of America Stadium, coach Kirby Smart suddenly turned and ran back toward the Bulldogs’ sideline. Without breaking stride, he leapt up on their bench and began gesturing to the crowd. He quickly whipped an already frothing throng of Georgia fans into a frenzy.

Still basking in the glow of Georgia’s throwback 10-3 victory late Saturday night, Smart was asked about that moment of spontaneous frivolity.

“I was nervous about that jump,” Smart confessed during the postgame press conference. “I said to myself, ‘if I slip, this will be on every camera in America; it’ll be on the ESPN Not Top 10.’ That went through my mind. But I was happy, and I felt like our fans didn’t get the love they needed. Our players sprinted to the locker room, so I wanted to show the fans some attention.”

Two revelations can be found in that statement from Smart: One, he was literally jumping for joy over Georgia’s win, which pushed him to 11-6 in Top 10 matchups; and, two, Smart knew every eye in college football was watching what unfolded there Saturday night.

While it was only Game 1 of the season, this one in particular was viewed as the game of the year in college football in 2021. It featured a non-conference matchup of a pair of Top 5 powerhouses, each expected to contend for the College Football Playoff this year.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The loser is, of course, far from out of it. And the Bulldogs locked up nothing. But if it comes down to one of the two of these teams getting in to the Final Four at year’s end, this head-to-head meeting could figure prominently in the CFP selection committee’s decision.

Of course, none of that was on the Bulldogs’ minds after winning Saturday night. It was mostly just pure elation to come out on top of a game they’ve been hyper-focused on for the better part of six months.

“Oh, we put everything into this game,” junior linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “Not just this game; every game for the whole season. All the work we put in, the offseason, all the skull sessions, working on our main pillars. This just speaks to type of team we have, the type of work we put in. And it’s going to continue. "

Here are some things we learned Saturday in Charlotte:

Exponential havoc

Clemson rushed for 2 yards. Two. One in the first half and one in the second.

Let that sink in for a moment. A lot of that had to do with Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei being sacked seven times for negative 46 yards. But the Tigers three running backs averaged only 1.78 yards per carry, so there was nothing going via the handoff either.

In the end, Clemson finished the night with three points and 180 yards on 60 plays. Six Bulldogs tallied 7 sacks (one short of school record). For some perspective, the Tigers had a streak of at least 400 yards of total offense in their previous 12 games. It was the lowest scoring total in the Dabo Swinney era.

It was as dominating a defensive performance as Georgia could have possibly hoped for.

“Sometimes you affect the quarterback and sometimes you sack him,” Smart said. “We did get some sacks today, but some of those were coverage sacks. (D.J. Uiagalelei) held the ball and I think he got confused and he got frustrated. Do we have an elite pass rush? I don’t know that yet. Can we effect quarterbacks? Absolutely.”

Safety Lewis Cine led the Bulldogs with nine tackles and two pass break-ups. Linebackers Nakobe Dean and Adam Anderson each had five tackles and Dean (2), Anderson, Travon Walker, Nolan Smith, Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter all had sacks.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

No explosiveness

Georgia’s longest play from scrimmage was 22 yards on a Zamir White run. Its longest pass play was a 21-yard completion to Jaylen Johnson. Those two plays barely make the Bulldogs’ grade as “explosive,” and explosive plays are the unquestioned goal of this offense in Year 2 of coordinator Todd Monken.

But the Bulldogs insist it’s coming. On Saturday, they were facing perhaps the best defense they’ll see in the regular season. Secondly, Georgia was missing several key parts. In addition to George Pickens (knee), Dominick Blaylock (knee) and Arik Gilbert (personal) being sidelined, Kearis Jackson did not take any offensive snaps (he returned punts only) while still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Flanker Jermaine Burton was targeted only three times and had three catches for 11 yards while still gimpy with an ankle injury. Split end Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint was “banged up” and came out of the game after catching just two passes for 12 yards.

But quarterback JT Daniels says not to read too much into it.

“I think there were way too may (plays) we were one player away,” said Daniels, who finished with 135 yards and an interception on 22-of-30 passing. “Coach Monken says all the time, ‘we can’t play with 10.’ And there were too many times that either I made the wrong decision, or we didn’t get the protection right or one guy doesn’t line up in the right spot. On third down against a team like Clemson, that’s going to lead to punting.”

Ericson comes through again

The first start of Tate Ratledge’s career lasted a scant five plays. The redshirt freshman from Rome won the No. 1 job at right guard in preseason camp. But he suffered a foot injury on Georgia’s first offensive possession and never returned.

Thankfully for the Bulldogs, junior center Warren Ericson had recovered well enough from a broken hand to be able to fill in for Ratledge at right guard. Only recently removed from wearing a club cast on his left hand, Ericson was alternating first team snaps with freshman center Sedrick Van Pran in pregame warmups. As it was, he and Ericson played next to each other most of the game.

Along with senior Jamaree Salyer, who returned to left tackle they provided solid protection for Daniels. They gave up just one sack to a defense that led the nation in sacks last season.

That was just one of numerous adjustments the Bulldogs made due to injuries. Despite being listed on the game-day depth chart as possible starters, neither tight end Darnell Washington nor defensive back Tykee Smith dressed out. Both were wearing protective boots for foot fractures. Junior tight end John FitzPatrick was still far from 100 percent, also from a foot ailment.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

As a result, freshman tight end Brock Bowers started at tight end and led Georgia with six catches for 43 yards on eight targets. Senior Latavious Brini played almost every snap at the star position that Bulldogs were hopeful Smith would shore up. Brini had four tackles and a pass breakup.

All-American performance

Georgia punter Jake Camarda lived up to his billing as a preseason All-American. The senior from Norcross averaged 43.4 yards on five punts and pinned Clemson inside the 20-yard line four times, including once at the 2 and another time at the 10.

It was all part of an overall winning effort Saturday on special teams by a Georgia team that unexpectedly lost its special teams coordinator right before preseason camp started in early August. Smart promoted former South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp to the position after he had spent six months as a defensive analyst.

It wasn’t a flawless effort. Kicker Jack Podlesny missed a 36-yard field goal and Georgia had a potentially disastrous play on a punt return in which Kendall Milton was hit by a bounding, rugby-style punt from Clemson’s Will Spiers, which resulted in a turnover at midfield.

“We’re trying to be aggressive, and they hit a rugby punt,” Smart said. “Some people believe you don’t even try to field that. Well, I hate that, because the ball is going to roll forever if we don’t get it. And sure enough, we got some bad luck. Kearis did what he was supposed to do. Kendall was blocking his tail off, and you get bad luck and things don’t go well. But our guys hung in there and showed composure.”

Perspective important

It’s important to realize that the teams Georgia and Clemson showcased on Saturday are unfinished products. Having two elite defenses oppose rebuilding offenses in such a charged atmosphere was bound to result in some fits and starts and miscues. Both will have much to address after reviewing the game video.

“That was two elite defenses going at each other,” Smart said. “But, let’s be honest, at the start of the season, the defense is always ahead of the offense. It’s that way across the country, until you create an identity and figure some things out.”

Said Clemson’s Swinney: “We lost to a really, really good team in a slugfest, I mean, a real fist-fight out there. They landed a couple of more body blows than we did, but we’ll move on down the road and we’ll see a lot of growth from this game.”