Georgia Tech’s defense faces tall task with No. 1 Clemson

The last time Georgia Tech played Clemson, it was Geoff Collins' first game as Tech’s head coach, and it was Clemson’s first game after defeating Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship game for the 2018 season.

The Yellow Jackets intercepted Trevor Lawrence twice in the second quarter of that game, but that was about all that went in Tech’s favor. The Tigers won 52-14, and running back Travis Etienne torched Tech’s defense for 205 yards and three touchdowns.

Now, just over a year later, despite Tech’s overall improvement, one thing remains the same: Lawrence and Etienne are two of the better players in college football and present a major challenge for Tech’s defense.

“(They are) two of the elite players in all of college football,” Collins said Tuesday. “We understand the work we’ve got cut out for us, not only in the passing game but in the running game. It’s well-documented that they’re elite players at their position in all of college football. We’ve just got to play at a high level as well.”

Etienne surprised many when he elected to return to Clemson for his senior season. He had been one of the better running backs in college football for three seasons, but he decided to come back for one final year. Through four games, Etienne has 637 total yards — including 245 receiving yards, which is more than halfway to his 2019 total of 432 receiving yards in 15 games.

“Any time they maybe feel like they get off-schedule or they really need to manage a down, (they think) ‘How do we get it to Travis Etienne?’” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said Tuesday. “... Miami this past week had people in position to make plays and (Etienne) was able to get out of some things that he should not be able to get out of based off just his talent and ability. He is as hard to tackle as anyone in the country. It is well-noted (and) well-documented, so it’ll have to be a team effort.”

On Clemson’s offensive line, four of the five starters are new this year. But despite the relative inexperience, they haven’t missed a beat, and that unit is a key element in Etienne’s success each week.

Tech defensive lineman Antonneous Clayton believes the battle between the offensive and defensive lines will be an important aspect of the game.

“We just have to play strong up front and be stout,” Clayton said Wednesday. "Just stay in our gaps, be where we’re supposed to be. The main thing is just executing our jobs. I feel like that’s the main focus this week, just everybody doing their job.

“... It only takes one guy not to do what they need to do, and then that’s the next big explosive play. What tends to happen is as those mistakes begin to grow, it’s explosive play after explosive play after explosive play.”

And Etienne isn’t the only offensive weapon Tech will be challenged to stop. Lawrence has continued to be one of the better quarterbacks in the country this year, and the hashtag #TankForTrevor appears every Sunday as NFL fans hope for their team to get a chance to draft Lawrence in April.

“He’s a generational talent,” Thacker said. "Everything that comes his way as far as recognition is earned. ... Like any quarterback, he is human. He does make mistakes. He is not flawless. But when it comes to talent, there’s not a more talented young man in the country.”

When the two teams take the field Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, it will have been 364 days since Lawrence last threw an interception. He’s completed 72.4% of his passes through four games and averages 285 passing yards per game.

Lawrence may not be flawless, but he — and Etienne — are about as close as it gets.

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