CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This was the moment for Georgia coach Kirby Smart to declare that, in this era of video-game offense, it’s still possible to win big by getting stops. Smart has fielded great defenses for a long time, and this might have that group’s finest night. The Bulldogs had just held Clemson to the fewest points in Dabo Swinney’s 14 seasons as coach.

And Smart did puff his chest a bit about his defense after Georgia’s 10-3 victory Saturday. He noted that the Bulldogs aim to hold opponents to less than 13 points every game.

“Everybody thinks we’re crazy,” Smart said. “They think, ‘You’ve never going to hold anyone to under 13 points in this day and age.’ Why can’t we?”

Yet Smart also said: “We’ve got a really good, physical football team. But we’ve got to score points. Because defense is hard to play now. You’ve got to score points to win games, and we know that. We’ve worked really hard on that, and we’ve got to get better at that.”

That’s true. The Bulldogs took advantage of a young quarterback, D.J. Uiagalelei. Yet it’s also the case that Georgia’s defense is always elite under Smart. As he said, why can’t they suffocate opponents like this?

The Tigers really couldn’t do anything at all. They didn’t break 100 total yards until their 10th possession. By that point they had five three-and-outs, including three drives for negative yards.

The Bulldogs rattled Uiagalelei. He’s the successor to Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in the last NFL draft. Uiagalelei was a big-time recruit and played well while replacing Lawrence for two starts as a freshman. He didn’t play a defense as good as Georgia’s.

The Bulldogs sacked Uiagalelei seven times and never let him get comfortable in the pocket. When he did have time to throw, Georgia’s pass coverage made him hesitant to let it fly. Clemson never could take pressure off of him by running the ball.

“I think we frustrated them and confused them,” Smart said.

Caption
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney reacts after a Georgia sack. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney reacts after a Georgia sack.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney reacts after a Georgia sack. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Bulldogs cashed in on Uiagalelei’s first big mistake, in the second quarter. Cornerback Christopher Smith baited Uiagalelei into throwing inside to Ross on third down and beat Ross to the spot. Smith snagged the ball and was in the clear to run 74 yards for a touchdown.

Georgia’s offense was having a hard time, too. Clemson’s defense slipped last season, which means it was just very good instead of dominant. The group looked to be back to its usual standards in the opener. It just didn’t matter much because Clemson couldn’t score.

“If the defense does that every game, we don’t need to score more than four points,” Bulldogs quarterback JT Daniels said.

Through three quarters Clemson never got closer than 33 yards from Georgia’s end zone. And that was courtesy of its defense. Baylon Specter intercepted Daniels’ pass to end Georgia’s first drive after halftime. Then the Tigers lost nine yards on three plays, two of them sacks, before punting.

The Bulldogs produced three punts and a field goal in the first half. Like Uiagalelei, Daniels frequently had pass rushers in his face. He showed good awareness to get the ball out quick. The interception was his only bad decision.

The Bulldogs didn’t throw deep much.

“They played some soft zone,” Smart said. “They didn’t give us a lot of shots.”

Georgia’s offense didn’t really need to take many chances. Its defense was giving Clemson nothing. The Bulldogs extended their lead to 10-3 in the fourth quarter by going 81 yards on 11 plays. That seemed to be plenty enough points, but suddenly, the Tigers found a rhythm in the fourth quarter.

Uiagalelei and wide receiver Joseph Ngata connected for a 44-yard gain on third-and-9. That put the Tigers at Georgia’s 42-yard line. A defensive pass-interference penalty set up a first-and-goal. Georgia twice pressured Uiagalelei until he threw it away, and Latavious Brini broke up another pass.

Clemson kicked a field goal to reduce its deficit to a touchdown. The clock showed 9:08 left. The Bulldogs would have to finish. They couldn’t gain a first down on their next drive. Clemson nearly bailed them out with a penalty for running into the punter.

The Tigers gained two first downs to make it to midfield. Jordan Davis, Georgia’s massive-but-quick nose tackle, sacked Uiagalelei on first down. Safety Lewis Cine broke up Uiagalelei’s pass on third down. The Bulldogs sent multiple blitzers at Uiagalelei on fourth-and-5. He rushed the throw and it fell incomplete.

The Bulldogs closed out the victory by running the ball. They won a physical game in which both offenses wheezed. The teams played to a stalemate at the line of scrimmage. The punters were making the best plays. Then came Smith’s lightning bolt out of nowhere. It turned out that was all the point Georgia needed to beat the Tigers.

The Bulldogs were, of course, happy for that. They also know it’s also the case that it won’t be enough.

The expectation was that Clemson’s offense would keep rolling with Uiagalelei and the other talented players recruited by Swinney. That belief grew when star wide receiver Justyn Ross was cleared to play after missing last season with a neck injury. But that’s a lot to put on Uiagalelei because, really, how often do inexperienced quarterbacks step in and immediately play well for elite teams?

Lawrence did it for Clemson. It’s happening regularly nowadays at Alabama. It’s not the norm at most places, though. Uiagalelei might eventually be great, but he wasn’t ready for Georgia.

Speaking of the Crimson Tide, people here had them on their minds. As fans streamed into Bank of America Stadium, No. 1 Alabama was finishing its blowout victory over No. 14 Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Tide saw nearly half of their offensive starters from last season selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. They opened their national title defense by hanging 44 points on the Hurricanes like it was nothing.

Georgia will have to deal with the Alabama machine to get where they want to go. The Bulldogs have the defense to do it. Figure how to score more points, and they’ll be a challenge for Bama should they see each other again in the postseason.

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