Georgia Southern’s latest trip to take on a Power 5 conference team held to an eerily similar script as the last time around.
Facing one of the best defensive lines in the nation in the 2017 opener at Auburn, the Eagles could barely move the chains as their run-heavy attack was stifled. Matched up against the Clemson Tigers and what might be the best defensive line of 2018, not much went better.
The Eagle defense held their own, but the offense managed just 140 yards as the No. 2-ranked Tigers claimed a 38-7 victory Saturday afternoon at Clemson Memorial Stadium.
“Their defense is really good,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “They probably have one of the best defensive lines in the country. We were hoping to do a little better. When it came down to it, they just got us.”
While the Eagle offense sputtered throughout the day, the defense came to play.
On the first drive of the day, Clemson moved the ball downfield quickly only to see Kindle Vildor step in front of a Kelly Bryant pass for an interception at the GS 24. Clemson’s second drive ended with the Eagle defense holding tight and a missed 39-yard field goal by Huegel.
With the Eagle offense still struggling, the defense came up big once more when Chris Harris forced a fumble and Raymond Johnson III dove on it. But the three Georgia Southern series off of those Clemson miscues netted just 23 yards on 13 plays and three punts.
Clemson finally got rolling in the second quarter.
Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence (12-for-19, 197 yds., TD) directed a 13-play, 93-yard touchdown drive for the first points of the game. Lawrence completed all four pass attempts on the drive and Travis Etienne — who carried 16 times for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns — powered in from a yard out for the 7-0 advantage.
The Eagle defense began to wear down as the second quarter dragged along.
A missed coverage on Clemson’s next possession allowed Lawrence to hit Justyn Ross over the top for a 57-yard touchdown strike to make it 14-0. Etienne then rushed for 61 yards on four attempts to set up Tavian Feaster for a 1-yard scoring plunge that gave the Tigers a 21-0 halftime lead.
“I think we played really well defensively, for the most part,” Vildor said. “We just got a little tired and they made some plays.”
“To have a chance against the number two team in the nation, you have to find an offensive rhythm,,” Lunsford said. “At halftime, we had 18 offensive snaps and 50 defensive snaps. That’s not gonna do it.”
Huegel made good on a second chance, splitting the uprights with a 37-yard field goal to put Clemson up 24-0.
That’s where the fourth quarter began, and it took a trick play to finally get the Eagles on the scoreboard.
Werts whipped a quick pass to Obe Fortune, who did a good job of selling a screen play. Fortune then loaded up and lofted a high pass that reached Wesley Kennedy III just before a Clemson defender could. The 40-yard completion got the Eagles down to the Clemson 6 and Werts — playing in his home state against a team that had recruited him out of high school — took the next play in for the Eagles’ lone score.
“It didn’t hurt because I grew up here. It hurt because we lost,” Werts said. “(Clemson) was everything we thought they were going to be. Now we have to go and get better.”
The Georgia Southern defense forced a three-and-out from the Tiger offense on the ensuing series, giving the Eagles some hope for a comeback. Georgia Southern drove as far as the Clemson 32, but penalties and sacks led to an unsuccessful 4th-and-22 attempt from near midfield.
Two plays after the turnover on downs, Etienne slipped around the right side and broke off a 40-yard touchdown romp. With both teams playing reserves, Clemson tacked on one final score - a 10-yard Adam Choice touchdown run - to bring the game to its final score.
Georgia Southern will have a full two weeks to shake off the loss before opening Sun Belt Conference play. On Sept. 29, defending conference champion Arkansas State will come to Paulson Stadium.