CLEMSON – There were no outward signs of panic, or even depression. It was just the first game, after all, and this program has been down before and eventually come out of it.
"I don't think we have anybody in there ready to jump off a bridge or anything,” head coach Mark Richt said.
There was no escaping, however, the obvious: Once again, the Georgia football team failed on a national stage.
It was not a spectacular failure this time. It was not a blowout. It was a game that was there for the taking. But Georgia, a team with national title aspirations, just didn’t look the part in a season-opening 38-35 defeat at No. 8 Clemson.
A couple of moments exemplified that this just wasn’t Georgia’s night. One was worthy of head-shaking. Another was more serious.
The Bulldogs scored their first touchdown on a spectacular 75-yard touchdown run by star tailback Todd Gurley. But in the celebration, star receiver Malcolm Mitchell landed awkwardly and suffered a serious knee injury.
Gurley also injured a quad muscle on the play and was limited the rest of the game. He still finished with 154 yards and another touchdown. Mitchell never did return, and his season could be in doubt.
Then there was the comedy of error: On what should have been an easy, game-tying field goal in the third quarter, the snap was too high, and no attempt was made. As it turned out, it proved the difference in the score.
"It would have been interesting to see what would've happened if we'd had made that short-range field goal,” Richt said.
But in another high-profile game, Richt’s team was left was wondering about what might have been instead of what it did.
The game played out much as expected, a shoot-out between two strong offenses. Clemson’s was as strong as expected, while Georgia faltered at the wrong times and was undone by some key, glaring mistakes:
- A fumble deep in its own territory that set up a Clemson touchdown. - An interaction in Clemson territory, the first play after the Tigers’ only turnover of the game. (A muffed punt return.) - The botched field goal. - Nine penalties for a total of 84 yards.
“We killed ourselves with penalties,” quarterback Aaron Murray. “Penalties are a big reason we lost (Saturday).”
There were other reasons. Georgia’s offensive line also struggled immensely, and Murray had an uneven game.
“At the end of the day we gave up pressure, we didn't open up that many holes, and Aaron's jersey was dirty,” Georgia offensive tackle Kolton Houston said.
The Bulldogs’ young defense had its moments in the third quarter, forcing Clemson to punt seven times. But as the game went on it wore down. Prior to that, it failed to force the Tigers and their star quarterback, Tajh Boyd, into any turnovers. The only one by Clemson came on special teams, and was immediately negated by Murray’s interception.
Georgia did hold a 21-14 lead in the second quarter. But Murray’s fumble at his own 16, thanks to a blown blocking assignment by the offensive line, put Clemson on the doorstep, and it capitalized.
Clemson expanded the lead to 28-21 in the third quarter, and was threatening to pull away. But a fake punt run by Georgia punter Collin Barber extended a drive, and eventually Gurley scored on a 12-yard run, bouncing off defenders along the way.
After holding Clemson to a field goal, Georgia was poised to take the lead, driving to the 5. But three straight runs couldn’t punch it in, and Beless walked on for a game-tying field goal. He never got to try it: The snap was high, and holder Adam Erickson had to jump on it.
Three drives later, Clemson found itself inside the 10, and it was able to punch it in. That made it a two-score game, all but dooming a Georgia team whose offense largely failed it in the second half.
"It hurts. People are gonna feel like the season's lost, but it's not,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We've got a lot of football to play. We've gotta regroup, because we've got a very good team coming in to our place next Saturday. It's tough, but we've gotta forget this game and move on."
Next up is No. 6 South Carolina, both a formidable opponent and a chance to rebound emotionally. The Gamecocks have defeated the Bulldogs three years in a row, but next week Georgia gets back safety Josh Harvey-Clemons off suspension, and Richt said he also expects back the other safety, Corey Moore.
“That happens in football. When you play a really good football team you could get beat,” Richt said. “And when you do, you move on, and you continue to play well and get better, make corrections. We're still learning a lot about this team. We'll get some firepower back defensively.”
Still, Richt will need his offense and special teams to improve as well.
The scene of the game played out midway through the fourth quarter, summed it up: After what would have been a long completion, a holding call was whistled against the Georgia offensive line. Murray grabbed his helmet with both hands. Offensive tackle Kenarious Gates stomped his feet in frustration.
It was another big game. It was another performance that fell short.