Clemson isn’t great, but there’s still a big gap to Georgia Tech

The first sign of trouble for Clemson in 2021 came in Week 3. It was one thing when the Tigers struggled to score against Georgia’s elite defense on a neutral field in the opener. Alarms sounded when they scuffled against Georgia Tech at home. The Yellow Jackets were bad on defense the previous year. They ended up being even worse in 2021.

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This time, the Jackets can’t take a loss to Clemson as the sign of good things to come. The Tigers didn’t look like a powerhouse Monday night, yet still rolled to a 41-10 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Tech’s losing margin was 14-8 last season. This defeat was a return to the norm.

The Tigers are more vulnerable than they’ve been since Dabo Swinney’s early days as head coach. There’s still a big gap between them and Tech. The Jackets got the margin down to four points early in the second half, but that was their last competitive moment.

The Tigers weren’t sharp, but that wasn’t necessary to blow out Tech. The Jackets had two punts blocked and compiled as many penalties (10) as points.

“Disappointment (and) hurt from me, obviously, as the leader of the program,” Tech coach Geoff Collins said. “I take great responsibility in getting the things cleaned up.”

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Collins is 0-4 against Clemson, with three losses by big margins. That would be the baseline expectation even if he wasn’t making the harsh transition away from the triple-option era. Former coach Paul Johnson lost his last three games against Clemson, twice by three touchdowns or more. Everyone in the ACC has a hard time handling the Tigers.

But Clemson has slipped since quarterback Trevor Lawrence left after the 2020 season. That was expected. He’s why NFL teams tanked. It seemed DJ Uiagalelei would make the changeover smooth. As a freshman, he was great in relief of Lawrence, especially in a big game at Notre Dame. He’s been trying to recapture that form since.

The Jackets nearly won last season’s game by pressuring Uiagalelei and forcing him to make plays. That plan was looking good again Monday, for a while. But Uiagalelei was better after halftime while Tech self-destructed. The Jackets were too limited on offense, careless with the ball and penalized way too often.

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Afterward, Collins said the Jackets can build on some positives from the game.

“But, right now, no one wants to hear about that, and I don’t want to talk about it,” Collins said.

Tech played Clemson to a scoreless draw in the first quarter. At halftime, the Jackets had twice as many penalties (six) as points. The score was only 14-3 because Clemson was nearly as bad. The Tigers looked much the same as they did last season: great defense, suspect offensive line, poor quarterback play.

Clemson 41, Georgia Tech 10

Clemson’s first four drives ended punt, fumble, punt and punt. The Tigers scored one touchdown on a short field after a blocked punt. They scored the other TD on an eight-play drive that was extended when Tech blew a coverage on third down.

Tech quarterback Jeff Sims threw an interception on the first play of the game. The Jackets punted to end their next four possessions, with a trio of three-and-outs. Then they missed a field-goal try. After another anemic Clemson drive to start the second half, Collins got aggressive when Tech got the ball back.

The Jackets had a fourth-and-6 at Clemson’s 37-yard line. A field-goal attempt would be about 54 yards. Tech’s Jude Kelley had missed from 50 yards, but the kick had the distance. Collins elected to go for the first down. Sims got it with a nifty pass to Malik Rutherford for 10 yards. Sims gained another first down with an 11-yard run, then passed to E.J. Jenkins for a 13-yard TD.

The Jackets were down 14-10 with nearly 25 minutes left. They had the momentum. Their fans finally had something to cheer about. This was the time for Tech to get a stop and another score. Instead, Clemson scored on its next two possessions, while Tech twice ran three plays and punted.

That was it for the Jackets. The touchdown pass ended up being Sims’ last big moment. After that, Clemson didn’t allow the Jackets to advance past their 42-yard line. Tech yielded two more touchdowns, one of them after Clemson’s second blocked punt. Five-star freshman Cade Klubnik relieved Uiagalelei and led another TD drive.

The Jackets are long removed from the days when they beat Clemson regularly. Johnson’s Jackets won their first three games against the Tigers. One of those victories was for the 2009 ACC championship. Johnson was tripping up foes with his old-school offense. The Tigers were transitioning from Tommy Bowden to Swinney. Swinney had a national title contender by 2015.

Johnson won only two of his last nine games against Clemson. All seven losses were by at least two touchdowns. The margin was three TDs or more for three of them. The Tigers did the same thing to all ACC foes once Swinney got them rolling. The rest of the league couldn’t match his recruiting, player development and staff retention.

It seemed Collins had his program on the come after the Jackets nearly won at Clemson last season. They beat No. 21 North Carolina the next week. They’ve lost eight of nine games since. That includes the beat down by Clemson on Monday. This time, the Jackets can’t say a loss to the Tigers is something to build on.