“Touchdown Trevor Lawrence!”, just as expected. What fans didn’t expect? That Lawrence would score not through the air, but on a six-yard rush for Clemson’s first score of the season.
The paradox summed up the whole night – full of change and a distinct difference in the air.
The Thursday night crowd of 79,118 was impressive, but it didn’t feel like a traditional night game or an opening game. The ACC Network cast and Clemson radio cast received positive reviews, and even the metal detectors didn’t disrupt fans from getting into the stadium on time to see the defending National Champions run down Howard’s Rock.
Some of the difference was unexplainable – odd momentum changes that make the human element of sports, especially in the unique game of football.
Speaking of human, Trevor Lawrence was paradoxically human. He was stunningly average through the air (13/23, 168 yards, 1 TD 2 INT), with only one standout throw to Tee Higgins (61-yard score) all night.
What he lacked through the air, he made up for on the ground: he sliced Tech’s defense for 24 yards and looked impressive while doing so. More importantly, he made a score saving tackle off of his own interception at the two-yard line.
It didn’t matter that Clemson lost nine key players on defense, Venables’ crew was reloaded and ready for the challenge. The most impressive moment was a four down goal line stand at the two-yard line stemming from Lawrence’s interception, and the cherry on top was Denzel Johnson’s fourth down interception of Tobias Oliver.
Most of Clemson’s scoring in the first half came off of turnovers and in chunk plays, and most of the big plays were courtesy of Etienne (12 att., 205 yards, 3 scores). After his early fumble, Etienne redeemed himself with a truly impressive 90-yard rushing touchdown.
Another Tech turnover led to a 14 yard Etienne rushing score, and Etienne sealed the game early in the second half with a 48-yard rushing score.
Clemson also was lucky with turnovers. Lawrence’s opening scramble score only happened because Georgia Tech muffed their opening punt return on a three-and-out. Etienne’s 14-yard rush (third score of the night) was sparked due to a Chad Smith forced fumble and a Xavier Kelly fumble recovery inside the red zone.
Most importantly, Lawrence’s impressive pass of the night was made possible by the defense’s goal line stand, which was in turn made possible due to the star quarterback’s score saving tackle – his best play of the night.
The rest of the game was the means of getting to the foregone conclusion. Tech scored another touchdown, and BT Potter scored a 51-yard field goal to cheers from the crowd. Lyn-J Dixon and Darien Rencher ran down the game clock as Chase Brice passed well, including giving freshman Frank Ladson his first touchdown of his career.
Although the Clemson offense was oddly stop-and-go and Tech’s offense was anemic, the impressive play of the defense shouldn’t be lost. Star hybrid player Isaiah Simmons led the team with ten tackles as he showcased his possibly-first-round-talent all over the field.
Numerous other players stepped up as well in a team effort. Denzel Johnson and Tanner Muse caught interceptions, Chad Smith and Xavier Kelly tag teamed a forced fumble and recovery, Starting freshman DT Tyler Davis racked up four tackles and a sack, and Skalski also played well (five tackles, 0.5 sack).
The Tigers handled the challenge in front of them, and responded with a 52-14 pummeling of Georgia Tech to inaugurate the ACC Network.
The game felt different and the faces were mostly different but the result was the same. The old stars on defense are gone and new stars on defense are being formed. Most of the returning offensive stars appeared in sync, but Trevor Lawrence isn’t defined by one bad game.
Georgia Tech can’t share Clemson’s optimism as their immediate future looks bleak. The Above the Line depth chart, social media turnover white board, and rubber weight lifting equipment on the side line didn’t inspire promise.
While Clemson has many hiccups and unknowns, the reasons for optimism are numerous: a history of success, returning talent, excellent young recruits, the best coaching staff in the nation, and the continuity to handle the grind of a season.