Updated, 10:10 p.m.
CLEMSON, S.C. – As late-afternoon shadows crept across Memorial Stadium, the Clemson faithful stood in full-throated roar. The sellout crowd sensed its team about to deliver a knockout punch to Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets complied. Another fourth-quarter breakdown torched three quarters of effort and offensive play-making in a 47-31 defeat to No. 15 Clemson Saturday in Death Valley. A week after absorbing one of the worst losses in school history, Tech made good on its vow to give a better account of itself against the Tigers. It did, but up against an arsenal of offensive weapons and its own self-destructive habits, it wasn’t enough.
“Right now, we’ve got to play close to perfect,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Clearly, we’ve got to score more points.”
The Jackets fell to 2-4 overall and 1-3 in the ACC and made the bus ride home down I-85 with regrets of plays missed and chances squandered packed underneath. They also are owners of their second three-game losing streak in the past three seasons.
Twelve months after opening the season 6-0 for the first time since 1966 and rising to No. 12 in the polls, the 2012 Jackets have scuffled their way to a less glorious piece of history. Tech goes into its bye week with its worst record after six games since the 1994 team, which started the season 1-5 and later brought about the late-season dismissal of coach Bill Lewis.
“We’ll come back,” Johnson said. “They played hard for the most part, and if they’ll play hard, we’ve got to find a way to try to help them win.”
As was the case against Virginia Tech and Miami, the Jackets held a fourth-quarter lead Saturday, this time in a game that few gave them any chance to win after their 21-point home loss to Middle Tennessee State last Saturday. The Tech offense at times scalded Clemson’s poor tackling defense. Quarterback Tevin Washington operated the option effectively, freeing up A-backs Orwin Smith and Robbie Godhigh to gain 178 rushing yards on just 11 carries. He completed nine of 14 passes for 144 yards.
Said Smith, “I saw guys with more drive than previous weeks.”
Tech’s work led to kicker David Scully’s 26-yard field goal that gave the Jackets a 31-30 lead with 13:03 left in the game, the fourth time they had wrested the lead from Clemson. The Tigers responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive, one of their six scoring drives measuring 70 yards or more, completing it with a 35-yard pass to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. A two-point conversion gave Clemson a 38-31 lead.
A team that is becoming painfully familiar with an inability to rise to the game’s biggest moments tripped again, this time literally.
Chris Milton misplayed the ensuing kickoff, fumbling the ball before recovering it and then slipping to the ground at the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Washington pitched to Smith, who was overrun by Clemson defenders and dropped for a safety for a 40-31 lead. The stadium shook in approval.
The episode recalled Smith’s own safety on a kickoff against Miami.
“You can play 10 years of football and never take a kickoff return on the 1-yard line and have a safety on a kickoff return,” Johnson said. “We’ve had both. It seems like it shouldn’t happen.”
On the series after the safety, the Tech defense, which allowed 601 yards to Clemson, gave a spark when inside linebacker Daniel Drummond intercepted a Tajh Boyd pass, returning the ball to the Jackets at the Tech 45-yard line. Down nine and needing two scores, Tech drove and then sent Scully out for a 37-yard field goal. His try was blocked, his second miss of the game.
“That was pretty much it,” Johnson said.
It brought an end to an afternoon that held the hope for a season-turning upset but was done in with a mound of errors. Tech tried for a first down on 4th-and-1 from its own 37 on its first possession of the game and was denied on a sneak by Washington.
Nose tackle Shawn Green made one of the plays of the game in the third quarter, intercepting a screen pass and returning it 17 yards to the Clemson 26, but Tech squandered the opportunity to add to its 28-27 lead. A botched snap between center Catlin Alford and Washington on 4th-and-1 from the 7 gave the ball back to the Tigers.
Occasionally better defensive play and pass-rush pressure often placed Clemson in 3rd-and-long situations. As has become rote, though, the Jackets allowed Clemson to convert 13 of 19 third downs. Tech has given up 31 of 46 third downs in the past three games.
The first-quarter fourth-down try in its own end spoke more about the state of Tech’s defense than Johnson would.
“I thought we could make it,” Johnson said.
Once again, opportunity lost.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog