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Defense Carries the Dawgs Over Clemson

Jordan Davis (99) and the rest of the Bulldogs’ front seven sacked Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei seven times. Credit: Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA Athletics

These Dawgs didn’t learn any new tricks, but they still have some old ones up their sleeve.

On the back of a shutdown performance by the defense, Georgia defeated Clemson 10-3 Saturday night in Charlotte. Tigers signal-caller D.J. Uiagalelei received a baptism by fire courtesy of the Bulldogs. The Georgia defense sacked him seven (!) times and nabbed a pick-six that ended up being the final margin of victory. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

The performance wasn’t enough for the Dawgs to lay down their markers as national title contenders, especially offensively, but the result was. Now Georgia controls its own destiny the rest of the season against a manageable schedule. With a win over Clemson under our belt, running the table in the regular season puts us in a College Football Playoff spot regardless of the result in the SEC Championship Game.

But while there’s much to be excited about as the early season rolls on, there’s also plenty of reason for concern, specifically on offense.

There are no concerns about this Georgia defense, however. In my season preview last week, I barely mentioned the defense because I—along with plenty of other Dawg fans—have taken our defense for granted. Under Kirby Smart, we know we’re going to have a good defense. But I wasn’t expecting the utter dominance on display against Clemson.

Those seven sacks came from six different players. Uiagalelei was under pressure from the jump, and it rattled him. As soon as he got off a snap, one or two or three Bulldogs were on top of him, ready to bring him down. The Dawgs also have the best run defense in the nation once again, holding the Tigers to a whopping two net rushing yards. This, in turn, allowed the secondary to press on receivers and take away Clemson’s opportunities through the air, which gave the defensive front more time to bring down Uiagalelei. It was a perfect storm, and fitting that Christopher Smith’s 74-yard interception return was the final margin of victory.

Although you can’t argue with the final result, the offensive performance left a lot to be desired—especially following an offseason where the main talking point was how much better we should be on that side of the ball.

JT Daniels had a Jake Fromm-esque stat line, completing 22 of 30 pass attempts for 135 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He was tidy, if unspectacular, and did enough to keep the sticks moving at some crucial moments. Ditto the running game. When it was time to put up or shut up, Zamir White carried the load, grabbing a handful of important first downs late in the fourth and finishing with 13 carries for 74 yards. In total, the Georgia offense rushed for 121 yards on 3.9 yards per carry.

We won’t face another defense as good as Clemson’s this regular season, but ending the game with no offensive touchdowns isn’t good enough. That doesn’t fall on any of the players, though. That falls on Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who seemed far too content to play sideline-to-sideline instead of opening the game up vertically with downfield passing. Yes, the receiving corps is quite banged up, but I would’ve liked to see more of an effort to be explosive.

While I was disappointed in how the offensive game was called, I wasn’t surprised. Smart wants an offense that is reactive to what the defense gives. A defense with a secondary and defensive front like Clemson’s does not give you much time to find a downfield pass, and it seems Smart and Monken drew up a game plan to accommodate for that. For now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they may open up the playbook against weaker defenses.

If they were in fact being reactive, though, that doesn’t augur well for future big games. We’ve lost big games in the past because we got too conservative. But at this point, going conservative against good teams seems to be Smart’s modus operandi, and he seems willing to die on that hill. This time it worked out. We’ll have to wait and see about next time.