Tigers narrowly beat Jackets in Death Valley

Brent Cimaglia (42) hits a field goal, one of his two on the day. Both were from 22 yards out as Tech reached the red zone twice. // Photo by Taylor Gray Student Publications

Despite facing a nearly four-touchdown favorite in Death Valley, Tech exited with a narrow loss in a defensive battle against Clemson on Sept. 18. A sellout crowd of almost entirely orange-clad fans watched the slugfest under cloudy skies as the 3:30 p.m. game lasted until around 9 p.m. after a delay. A pregame flyover and some Clemson recruiting videos capped the festivities before kickoff and the game was underway.

A rain shower around half an hour before kickoff was a sign of the delay to come, but the inclement weather cleared up before the teams took the field. Tech won the toss and deferred. Gavin Stewart sent the opening kickoff out for a touchback, and Clemson promptly committed their first of eight penalties, a false start on the first play of the game.

Tech struggled to put pressure on Clemson’s quarterback, sophomore DJ Uiagalelei, early in the game, but the defense managed to force a punt on the Tigers’ opening drive. The Jackets gained possession on their own four, and despite earning a first down on their very first play, ended up punting from their own endzone after a Clemson sack. The play was reviewed for targeting, the first of three such plays in the game, but ultimately the non-call was upheld and a short Tech punt gave Clemson the ball on the Tech 39-yard line.

A drive highlighted by several runs by Clemson’s freshman running back Will Shipley was capped by a three-yard touchdown run from Shipley himself. Clemson took the 7-0 lead following the extra point. The teams traded punts with neither gaining a first down before Clemson faced a fourth and two in the redzone. A shovel pass to Shipley was stuffed, and Tech began to gather its first burst of momentum of the game.

The Jackets finally got their second first down of the game on the ensuing drive, and made it into Clemson territory before punting. After forcing a three-and-out, Tech had the ball on their own 29 with a bit under three minutes left. The second targeting review of the game occurred after Tech’s freshman quarterback Jordan Yates was hit in the head, and this time the play upheld, resulting in Clemson’s Trenton Simpson being ejected. A carry by freshman running back Jahmyr Gibbs set Tech up with a third and short inside the redzone, leading to a Tech timeout with 32 seconds left.

Shortly after the timeout, an announcement was made that lightning was detected in the area and the game would be delayed for at least half an hour. Fans were asked to leave and find cover, and the stadium mostly emptied out as players walked back to their locker rooms and attendees left their seats. The delay would stretch to nearly two hours as coaches and players tried to stay ready for play.

The coaches agreed to have the delay serve as halftime, with the remaining 32 seconds and the entire second half played consecutively without a full halftime break between the second and third quarters.

Tech moved as far as the Clemson five-yard line following the break, but an incomplete pass led to a chip shot field goal by senior Brent Cimaglia and let the Jackets cut the deficit to four at the half.

Tech received the ball right back since they deferred following the coin toss, and immediately moved the ball downfield with a 35-yard strike to senior wideout Kyric McGowan. The drive stalled a few plays later, and Tech was forced to punt. Freshman defensive lineman Zeek Biggers made a big run stuff to help stall Clemson’s next drive as the teams traded punts before Clemson mounted a drive into the redzone. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Uiagalelei ran far enough for a first down before fumbling the ball, which was recovered by Tech for its second redzone stop.

The Jackets failed to gain significant momentum after the turnover, and Clemson once again drove down the field to the redzone. A targeting penalty on Tech’s senior safety Tariq Carpenter saw him ejected and gave the Tigers the ball inside the five-yard line, and a second rushing touchdown by Shipley gave Clemson a 14-3 lead.

The Jackets, needing to respond, moved the ball well following the score before facing a fourth and seven at Clemson’s 35-yard line. A botched snap led to Yates scooping the ball off the ground and firing a prayer toward Dylan Deveney, who hauled in a catch just off the ground for the first down. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney challenged the play, but the ruling was upheld.

Tech once again got as far as the five-yard line, but when faced with fourth down elected to kick another 22-yard field goal and cut the deficit to eight, rendering it a one score game with 1:19 to play. Gavin Stewart’s onside kick bounced over a Clemson returner and right into Tech’s hands on the sideline, answering a prayer and giving the Jackets another chance to score.

A personal foul and a long completion to McGowan quickly move the ball to the redzone for Tech. Two plays later, the Jackets have a fresh set of downs on the Clemson three-yard line as well as two timeouts. Despite the resources and distance, Tech once again failed to punch the ball into the endzone, reaching the one-yard line on fourth down but giving the ball back to the Tigers.

With only 15 seconds left, the game appeared to be over, but a Shipley fumble recovered in the endzone by Clemson gave Tech a safety, decreasing the scoring margin to six points and giving the Jackets the ball. With only seven seconds left and needing to go 75 yards, Tech resorted to the lateral drill. They only gained around 11 yards before an illegal forward pass, and Clemson escaped with a six-point win at home.

The intensity of the game was reflected in the postgame interviews, with players and coach alike visibly fatigued. Collins praised the team’s effort, saying, “I am blessed to coach these young men, what they put into this, how they battle, how they fight.”

On the difference between this game as compared to the last two matchups with Clemson, Collins said, “It’s just … the attitude, the demeanor, the fight, the attention to detail [and] the willingness to compete toe to toe.”

Collins gave the Tigers credit for their play. “That’s one of the best defenses in college football… I don’t think they’ve allowed a touchdown all season,” said Collins. “That offensive line for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets battled… I’m really proud of that group [with] the way they took on one of the top front sevens in college football.”

The players were disappointed with the end result, but echoed similar sentiments of pride in the quality of play. “Definitely not happy not coming out with the win but really proud of the way the defense showed up and played and how we fought on offense,” said McGowan after the game.

When asked about weathering Clemson pounding the ball on the ground in the second half, junior linebacker Quez Jackson said, “I just feel like I fell back on my training, we as a defense did and Coach did a great job with us so, you know, we train for moments like that. We did our best to fight through it.”

The game was a defensive battle from start to finish, and Tech has plenty to take away from it. They had a positive turnover margin, outgained the Tigers and had fewer penalty yards. However, redzone offense and third down defense are glaring areas of improvement, as settling for field goals and allowing Clemson to extend drives on long third downs both contributed to the loss.

Tech faces North Carolina in a home game played at Mercedes Benz stadium next week. The Tarheels are coming off two straight wins. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 25. Clemson will travel to Raleigh to face North Carolina State at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 25.