Clemson’s home game tradition calls for the Tigers to assemble at the east end of Memorial Stadium atop “The Hill.” They touch “Howard’s Rock” for good luck and run down the hill for what famed broadcaster Brent Musberger once said was “the Most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
Except in 2015, the Tigers have changed directions in their past two home games. They’ve figuratively climbed a couple of big hills that lead to Mt. CFP.
Clemson (5-0, 2-0 ACC Atlantic) upset then-No. 6 Notre Dame last week and avoided a letdown Saturday against Georgia Tech with a dominating 43-24 victory. The Tigers entered the week ranked No. 6 in the hunt for one of four College Football Playoff berths.
Notre Dame was a big-game victory the Tigers had failed to scale in their recent history. And avoiding a letdown against Georgia Tech as a trap game was another hill to climb. The two wins have allowed Clemson to overtake Florida State as the favorite in the Atlantic division and remain the ACC’s best hope for a CFB berth.
Perhaps most significantly, Clemson beat Georgia Tech without a wakeup call that required a dramatic comeback to save they season. The Tigers started the game quickly and played with energy and focus. Head coach Dabo Swinney was playing backups by the fourth quarter.
Clemson took the opening kickoff and faced a simple third-and-one after the first two plays. The left side of offensive line sealed off Clemson’s linebackers as running back Wayne Gallman ran outside the hash marks. Wide receiver Charone Peake, whose reception one play earlier came up one yard short of the first down, blocked the only Georgia Tech defender with a shot at making a tackle.
Gallman, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt sophomore, was suddenly running for much more than a first down. He ran by the block untouched to the end zone for a 66-yard touchdown gallop.
Just like that, Clemson led 7-0 three plays into the afternoon.
After the kickoff, Clemson’s defense also needed only three plays to define the day. With the Tigers forcing a third-and-7, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas dropped back for his first pass. Junior cornerback Cordera Tanksley intercepted it with a 10-yard return to Georgia Tech’s 36-yard line.
The Tigers had to settle for a 21-yard field goal from Greg Huegel, but all three units had flawlessly contributed to a 10-0 lead less than four minutes into the contest.
Swinney and his staff also were smart enough to limit sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson’s carries. He took hits in the Notre Dame game when he was needed to carry 16 times for 93 yards rushing with one touchdown.
Against Georgia Tech, Watson ran only six times for 16 yards while hurting the Yellow Jackets with his arm. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Nine Tigers carried the ball with Gallman topping the day running 13 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
Now that Clemson has taken advantage of back-to-back home games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, the Tigers benefit from a third straight home game next week against Boston College. Then they hit the road with next two games are at Miami and at North Carolina State to set up Clemson’s Nov. 7 showdown with Florida State at home.
In the age of parity, there are seasons within seasons. Just a month ago there was concern this was the same-old-Clemson. The Tigers won their first two games against overmatched opponents (Wofford and Appalachian State) and then almost gave away a game to then-winless and flailing Louisville.
Clemson was off for the next 10 days and regrouped before its impressive Notre Dame and Georgia Tech performances.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech (2-4, 0-3 Coastal) suffered its fourth straight defeat in what appears to be a lost season. In each game, Georgia Tech’s inability to avoid third-and-long situations doomed an offense that struggles to throw the ball.
The loss streak started at Notre Dame when the Yellow Jackets were 3 of 15; they were 5 of 19 in the loss to Duke; 5 of 13 while falling to North Carolina; and 1-of against Clemson.
Injuries have also played a role in derailing the Yellow Jackets’ season. Five running backs have missed games with three of them starters or expected to compete for starting jobs.
Georgia Tech is suddenly chasing bowl eligibility to salvage its season. The Yellow Jackets need four wins out of their remaining six games against Pitt, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia.
That’s not a smooth road for the Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech.