Georgia defense smothers Clemson to win opener

AP photo by Chris Carlson / Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean celebrates after sacking Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei during the first half of the Duke's Mayo Classic on Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There might be millions of college football fans who found the Duke's Mayo Classic on Saturday night inside Bank of America Stadium boring or aesthetically unpleasing at best.

For the Georgia Bulldogs, it was absolutely beautiful.

Unleashing a smothering defense and using the precision of senior punter Jake Camarda, the No. 5 Bulldogs pounded No. 3 Clemson into submission with a 10-3 downing before an electric crowd of 74,187. In what may be the only top-five matchup of the regular season in 2021, Georgia racked up seven sacks of Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, which heavily factored into the Tigers rushing for a scant 2 yards.

Uiagalelei drove the Tigers to Georgia's 45-yard line with 4:52 remaining, but a fourth-and-5 pass fell incomplete after he was pressured by linebacker Nakobi Dean and safety Lewis Cine. The Bulldogs churned out three first downs via the running of Zamir White and ran the final play in victory formation at Clemson's 12-yard line.

"If the defense does that every game, we don't need to score much more than four points," Georgia quarterback JT Daniels said.

The fact it was a night without an offensive touchdown hardly mattered to Georgia, which picked up its biggest win since the end of the 2017 season, when the Bulldogs defeated Auburn for their first Southeastern Conference title since 2005 and then outlasted Oklahoma in double overtime during a thrilling Rose Bowl national semifinal in the College Football Playoff.

Georgia proved Saturday that it will be a serious challenger for this season's national championship, and the Bulldogs showed that pinball-machine offensive numbers aren't the only way to win big games. Alabama and LSU won the past two national titles with dazzling attacks that averaged nearly 50 points per game, but Georgia-Clemson felt more like yesteryear when stout defenses and dominating field position paved the way to triumphs.

"This game definitely had a throwback feel to it," Bulldogs junior safety Christopher Smith, who accounted for the game's only touchdown, said. "It was fun for sure."

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart was Alabama's defensive coordinator a decade ago, when the Crimson Tide avenged a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in Tuscaloosa by downing the Tigers 21-0 in New Orleans to win the national championship. He was asked Saturday night if the Clemson game had a similar feel.

"This game was nothing like that one in terms of Clemson being spread and throwing it out," Smart said. "When we played Alabama-LSU, it was head-butt time, so they were two totally different games. The score was low like those games were, and there was a lot of back and forth.

"There were two elite defenses going at each other, but at the start of a season, I've always felt that the defenses were ahead of the offenses. I saw a game today that was 0-0 at halftime. As the year goes on, defenses don't usually tackle as well and numbers go up."

Georgia had a chance to produce the first points early in the second quarter but didn't when Jack Podlesny hooked a 36-yard field-goal attempt wide left.

With 2:58 remaining before halftime, however, Bulldogs safety Christopher Smith stepped in front of an Uiagalelei pass intended for Justyn Ross and raced 74 yards for a touchdown. Smith avoided a Uiagalelei tackle at the Clemson 13 to reach the end zone with his first career interception.

Podlesny's 22-yard field goal with 2:38 remaining in the third quarter extended Georgia's lead to 10-0, and Clemson got on the board on B.T. Potter's 22-yard field goal with 9:08 to play.

"On defense, we always have a goal of not allowing 13 points a game, and it feels good to hit that goal," Dean said after accounting for two of the sacks. "We also have a goal of no explosive plays, and they did have some of those. I felt good to get a team win, because they've got a great team.

"We knew it would be a 60-minute ballgame or however long it would take, and it was a great win for our team."

The Bulldogs will host the University of Alabama at Birmingham next Saturday in their Sanford Stadium opener, with kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.