CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Georgia coach Kirby Smart knew his defense was super athletic.
He didn’t know they would be this good.
Christopher Smith returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown and the fifth-ranked Bulldogs turned in a defensive effort for the ages, toppling No. 3 Clemson 10-3 on Saturday in the opener for both teams.
The Bulldogs held the Tigers to 2 yards rushing and sacked D.J. Uiagalelei seven times to position themselves for a serious run at the College Football Playoffs.
Uiagalelei finished 19 of 37 for 178 yards with one interception. He bobbled snaps, was out of sync with his receivers and spent most of the day under heavy duress against a relentless Bulldogs pass rush.
“We frustrated and confused them,” Smart said.
Even when Georgia turned the ball over, the Tigers couldn’t take advantage.
Trailing 7-0 in the third quarter, Baylon Specter appeared to give the Tigers some momentum when he intercepted JT Daniels‘ pass at the Georgia 33. But after a short gain on first down Uiagalelei was sacked on consecutive plays and Clemson was forced to punt.
Clemson didn’t score until 9:08 left in the game when a 44-yard reception by Joseph Ngata and a defensive pass interference penalty set up a 22-yard field goal by B.T. Potter, helping the Tigers avoid their first shutout since 2003.
Despite being dominated all game, the Tigers had a chance to tie with 7:35 left when they took over at their own 25. Clemson reached midfield and Dabo Swinney went for on fourth-and-5, only to see Uiagalelei’s hurried pass fall incomplete. From there, the Bulldogs ran out the clock.
“I knew we were would be pretty good and pretty deep on defense,” Smart said. “But we’re more athletic than when we were in the past.”
The loss leaves Clemson with a razor-thin margin for error when it comes to making its seventh straight College Football Playoff appearance. No team has ever made the playoff with two losses since the new four-team format began in 2015.
“I’m not going to write the season off because we lost 10-3 to a top five team,” Swinney said.
The only touchdown of the game came late in the second quarter when Smith jumped in front of a Uiagalelei pass intended for Justyn Ross and raced 74 yards to the end zone to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead at halftime. Swinney placed the blame on Ross making a bad decision on the route, saying he was supposed to “sit down or turn out” but instead kept running a slant.
“That’s the receiver putting the quarterback in bad spot,” Swinney said. “He just didn’t make the right decision.”
Uiagalelei wasn’t blaming anyone but himself.
“I didn’t play well today and everyone could see that,” Uiagalelei said.
Daniels had a pedestrian day for Georgia, completing 22 of 30 passes for 135 yards with one interception, but walked away with a smile on his face saying, “We just beat Clemson, so I’m happy.”
Former Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, made a surprise appearance at the game. Lawrence will start his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 12 when they open the season at the Houston Texans.
Georgia will make a leap into the top four, and possibly the top three after No. 2 Oklahoma struggled to beat Tulane. Clemson could drop out of the top five after being held to 180 yards.
Georgia: The defense is going to be a force to reckoned with. It held Clemson to 2 yards rushing and had seven sacks, barely giving Uiagalelei a chance to set up in the pocket. This may very well be the best defense in the country. The offense will need to become more explosive, although Daniels said with a grin “if the defense does that every game, we don’t need to score more than four points.”
Clemson: One of the concerns entering the game was how the Tigers were going to replace the production of running back Travis Etienne. Tigers running backs Kobe Pace and Will Shipley combined for just 14 yards on eight carries. On the flip side, Clemson’s defense is strong, holding Georgia to just three points. “Take away the interception and it’s a 3-3 game,” Swinney said.
Georgia: Hosts Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.
Clemson: Hosts South Carolina State on Saturday.