ATLANTA -- Defense was the story of the game Saturday when Georgia Tech played Clemson. That came as no surprise.
After the game, however, the defense that had people talking didn’t belong to the team wearing orange. It belonged instead to Georgia Tech, a thought that seemed unfathomable four weeks ago but was unquestionably the difference in the Yellow Jackets’ 28-6 win at chilly Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The much-maligned Georgia Tech defense was almost as dominant as the team’s offense has been lately. Georgia Tech limited Clemson to 125 yards rushing and 65 passing. The Yellow Jackets had three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns from Jamal Golden and Chris Milton. It was the first time Clemson hasn’t scored a touchdown since 2007, also against Georgia Tech, a span of 86 games.
It marked the first time that Georgia Tech has beaten a ranked team since it toppled No. 6 Clemson in 2011.
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“What a game,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “I was so proud of our guys, especially defensively. We haven’t had a game like that on defense in quite a while. Those kids work so hard. It was pleasing to see them come out and play as well as we did on defense.”
Defensive back D.J. White, who also had an interception, said, “I felt like we were executing and were very effective coming into (Saturday). Now six points? That’s something I didn’t see coming. But at the same time, our defense really stepped it up.”
Clemson kicked a field goal on its second possession and appeared to be ready to score again after moving the ball to the Georgia Tech 8. But on third-and-4, quarterback Cole Stoudt threw across the field and was intercepted by Jamal Golden, who ran 85 yards for a touchdown. The return gave Georgia Tech a 6-3 lead, and the Yellow Jackets never trailed.
“The interception came directly from film study, which is where most of my interceptions come from,” said Golden, who leads the team with four interceptions. “When I got it and saw open field, I was just thinking, ‘Get to the end zone.’ ”
That play seemed to turn the momentum in favor of Georgia Tech. It was essentially a 12-point swing.
“I think it was important,” Johnson said. “Any time you can score on defense, it’s great. It looked like they were maybe about to go up 6-0. I don’t think our kids were in any kind of panic mode.”
The other game-changer came three plays earlier when Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson injured his left knee. The freshman had missed the previous three games because of a broken bone in his right hand and had rushed for 40 yards and thrown for 27. He was injured at the end of a 7-yard scramble that got Clemson to the Georgia Tech 14.
With Watson out, Clemson had to bring in Stoudt. He had very little success against the aggressive Georgia Tech defense. Stoudt completed only 3-of-11 passes for 19 yards and three interceptions. He ran three times for 11 yards before being relieved in the fourth quarter.
“When Watson went out and got hurt, the other guys weren’t as mobile,” Johnson said. “We got good pressure with four (Saturday), and that made it easier to play in the secondary and they made some huge plays.”
Watson was headed for an MRI to confirm the injury, which is believed to be a torn ACL.
“I really hate it for him,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s had such great practices the last couple of weeks. He was so excited about playing. He was off to a great start (Saturday) it’s just a shame. That’s life, but you’ve got respond and make the best of it.”
The Georgia Tech offense was bullied around on the inside by Clemson’s defensive front but still managed to make enough plays to keep the Tigers at a distance. Georgia Tech rushed for 251 yards, with B-back Synjyn Days netting 89 of those, and threw for 102, as quarterback Justin Thomas shook off three sacks to complete 8-of-11 for 102 yards. Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter had five receptions for 77 yards while working against Clemson’s man-to-man coverage.
“I thought in the second half, offensively we made enough plays to stay on the field, run the clock and get enough points to win the game,” Johnson said.