5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s loss to No. 1 Clemson

Georgia Tech fans might take heart from this: In the season that the Yellow Jackets lost 69-14 to Notre Dame — the defeat that Tech’s 73-7 defeat to No. 1 Clemson displaced for most points allowed by a Yellow Jackets team in the modern era — Tech still finished 6-5, including a win over Georgia.

After the loss, coach Geoff Collins and players vowed to learn from Saturday’s calamity at Bobby Dodd Stadium and move on. “Go over the stuff we messed up on and move on,” said cornerback Zamari Walton. As Tech looks to a road trip to Boston College, five takeaways from the loss.

1. Clemson defense on another plane

Clemson was simply too much for Tech’s offense, which was held to a season-low 204 yards, 45% of its season average, with 59 of the yards gained on wide receiver Jalen Camp’s touchdown reception from Jeff Sims. What happened often was that four offensive linemen would be able to execute their blocks but the fifth could not sustain his, which blew up run plays and dropbacks. It was reminiscent of the Jackets' struggles last season.

It was a big reason why Tech did so poorly on third down (2-for-14) and also how Sims was sacked five times after having been sacked only twice in the first four games. When the line did block up a run play effectively, the speed and pursuit of the Tigers linebackers and defensive backs limited the gains.

ExploreClemson's dominant first half set tone for blowout

“Just a mindset,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “No smoke and mirrors, just good, fundamental, tough, physical football, being where we’re supposed to be and playing disciplined football.”

It shouldn’t invalidate the progress of the first four games — in which the Jackets cleared 400 yards of offense in each game after not having done it once last season — as much as it should reaffirm how much better Clemson is than any of Tech’s first four opponents. As coach Collins put it, “we’ve got to get a lot better.”

2. Jackets charred by Lawrence

Tech had a few moments on defense early on. Defensive end Curtis Ryans forced a fumble out of Clemson running back Travis Etienne on the Tigers' first possession after 206 consecutive fumble-free carries and cornerback Zamari Walton picked off quarterback Trevor Lawrence after he had thrown 366 passes in a row without an interception. Linebacker Quez Jackson sacked Lawrence on a well-timed blitz in the first quarter to help limit the Tigers to a field goal after Clemson had started a drive on Tech’s 16-yard line following a Sims fumble of a low snap.

But, the Jackets were otherwise chewed up, as might be suggested in a game in which Clemson set or tied at least 11 marks for Tech opponents, notably most points in a modern era game and most yards (671). Tech loaded up to stop the run, putting the game in Lawrence’s capable hands. Clemson had a near-even run/pass balance in its first four games (51/49), but passed 49 out of 88 plays Saturday (56%), including 27 out of 46 plays in the first half (59%).

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Lawrence’s quickness in delivering the ball negated any attempt to pressure him. Other times, he had more than enough time when the pass rush was slow to reach him. And others, breakdowns in the secondary left receivers with ample room for Lawrence to find them.

“Knew where to go with the ball, knew where to read the progressions, all of those kind of things,” Collins said.

And almost all times, he was accurate, sometimes ridiculously so. On his first touchdown pass, to receiver Cornell Powell in the side of the end zone, cornerback Tre Swilling had close coverage on Powell, and Lawrence’s pass still somehow eluded Swilling’s reach.

“He was getting some tight balls in,” Walton said. “I think he just made a couple of good throws that could have been stopped, but they were really good throws.”

Credit: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

3. Third-down troubles continue

Tech’s trouble defending on third down continued, as the Tigers were 9-for-17 on third down, including 5-for-7 in the first half. The Jackets are now 39-for-82 for the season (47.6%).

Tech continued its pattern of performing worse in the first half than the second, although in this case it was likely partly due to the fact that Clemson’s backups played most of the second-half snaps. For the season, Tech opponents are 26-for-44 in the first half (59.1%) in the first and second quarters and 13-for-38 (34.2%) after halftime.

Colins said that matchups were a problem, as was players understanding their role in the schemes, not to mention Clemson’s talent and coaching.

“But when we get in third down, we have to get off the field,” he said.

After the game, Clemson coaches gave a glimpse into the methods that have fueled five consecutive ACC championships and five consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, as well as two national championships.

4. A peek inside the machine

Coach Dabo Swinney made mention that the Tigers had accomplished a team first in winning three consecutive games at Grant Field.

“To win down here three years in a row, that’s a great accomplishment and something we’re really proud of,” he said.

When Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker respectfully observed during the week that Clemson’s wide receivers were being used less than last year’s standout pair of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross — “they’re just as talented; they’ve got great players,” he said of their replacements — Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Elliott turned it into a challenge for his receivers, including Amari Rodgers (six catches, 161 yards, two touchdowns).

“They mentioned Tee Higgins and Ross, and they said it in the right way,” Elliott said. “But we took it as a challenge for our guys to come out and show and prove what they could do on the perimeter.”

It likely isn’t easy to motivate players to prepare with excellence as a 27-point favorite, which Clemson was. A 66-point win would suggest that Swinney and his staff found a way to do it.

5. Unpredictability reigns in the conference

Outside of Clemson, very little makes sense in the ACC. The same Florida State team that the Jackets humbled in the season opener led 24-0 against No. 5 North Carolina on Saturday before hanging on to win 31-28.

A week after losing by three scores to Tech, Louisville pushed No. 4 Notre Dame before falling 12-7. Consider that, thus far, Boston College beat Pittsburgh, which beat Syracuse, which beat Tech, which beat Florida State, which beat North Carolina, which beat Virginia Tech, which beat … Boston College.

The variables of this season perhaps have only magnified the ACC’s dog-eat-dog quality. For Tech, even after a 73-7 humbling to the conference’s one seeming constant, it could be taken to mean that no game is out of reach.