ATHENS, Ga. — With the game on the line, Georgia coach Mark Richt gambled on his defense.
The gamble paid off.
Choosing to punt instead of go for a 49-yard field goal with the score tied late in the game, Richt's confidence in his punter and defense was rewarded with a 31-28 victory as Billy Bennett's 43-yard field goal was the difference. Clemson lost when Aarton Hunt's attempt at a 46-yard field goal fell just short of the crossbar with 1:43 left to play.
Georgia, ranked eighth in the nation, overcame turnover problems in the third quarter to win the season opener. The Bulldogs won with strong running from Musa Smith, a productive debut from the quarterback rotation of David Greene and D.J. Shockley, and better special teams play throughout the night. With the score tied 28-28, Shockley drove the Bulldogs from the Georgia 44 to the Clemson 32. On fourth and 12 from the 32, Richt called a time out with 8:33 left to play.
The options for Richt: Attempt a pooch punt, send Bennett on the field for a 49-yard field goal attempt, or go for the first down. Richt sent in the punt team, and Jonathan Kilgo kicked it out of bounds at the 8-yard line. Georgia's defense held on three plays, and soon the Bulldogs had the ball again in Clemson territory. This time on fourth down Richt liked the field position better for a field goal attempt, and Bennett's 43-yarder with 5:19 left to play gave Georgia the lead.
Richt had to make one more very difficult call when Georgia faced a fourth-and-1 call from its 39 with 40 seconds left. After Clemson used its last time out, Richt called a time out to discuss the decision longer. Instead of sending in the punt team, Richt left the offense on the field, and Smith dove over the top for the one yard needed for a first down. If that gamble had failed, Clemson might have been able to attempt a game-tying field goal, possibly forcing overtime.
This rivalry has a history of being decided with clutch field goals, including a 60-yarder by Georgia's Kevin Butler — who was in attendance Saturday night — in 1984, a 46-yarder by Clemson's David Treadwell in 1986, and another game-winner by Treadwell in 1987.
Bennett had struggled with inconsistency in preseason practice, but he made good on the field goal when it counted.
Georgia came within eight seconds of taking a 21-7 lead into the lockerrom at halftime, but cornerback Bruce Thornton was beaten by 6-foot-5 Clemson receiver Kevin Youngblood for a 21-yard scoring pass at the end of the half. That touchdown created momentum which Clemson kept while dominating the third quarter with two unanswered touchdowns. Simmons tested the Georgia secondary deep on almost every possession in the first half before settling on the 21-yard touchdown pass. Receivers Airese Currie and Derrick Hamilton had dropped potential scoring passes earlier in the half.
Even so, those passes helped keep Georgia's defense honest in the second half, setting up the running of tailbacks Bernard Rambert and Yusef Kelly and fullback Chad Jasmin. Georgia built the halftime lead by taking advantage of Clemson mistakes — costly penalties and a shanked punt by Athens native and former Georgia punter Wynn Kopp.
In the first quarter, two personal foul calls against Clemson kept a Gdrive alive when it appeared to have been stopped each time on third down. Greene found Damien Gary for a scoring pass from the 5 for a 7-0 lead.
Clemson answered with a touchdown set up by Kevin Morris' interception of a Greene pass intended for tight end Ben Watson.
Then came two special teams mistakes by the Tigers, each setting up Georgia touchdowns. An offsides call against Clemson on its kickoff following the touchdown forced a second kickoff. This one was returned by Fred Gibson 91 yards for a touchdown for a 14-7 Georgia lead.
Minutes later, Clemson punter Wynn Kopp picked up a low snap and, thinking he was under pressure, rushed his punt attempt, shanking a short punt about 15 yards.
Georgia quickly took advantage of excellent field position, taking the ball at the Clemson 15 on the first possesion for redshirt quarterback D.J. Shockley. After giving the ball to Smith on his first play, Shockley kept the ball for runs of 6 and 9 yards, the latter for a touchdown that gave Georgia a 21-7 lead.
After being the opportunist in the first half, Georgia suddenly began returning the favors in the third quarter.
A bad pitch from Greene to Smith was the first sign of the momentum switch. The fumbled pitch was picked up by senior defensive end Bryant McNeal, who ran 55 yards for the touchdown which tied the score at 21-21.
Georgia quickly gave the ball right back on a fumbled kickoff return by Gibson. The Bulldogs held on that drive when a 37-yard field goal attempt by Aaron Hunt hit the right upright, but still Clemson retained the momentum by driving 76 yards on 10 plays on its next drive, taking a 28-21 lead when Kelly powered in from the 1.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Boss Bailey sacked Simmons for a loss of 19 yards, and the much-needed big play from the defense again turned momentum toward the Bulldogs.
On the next play, Damien Gary returned a Kopp punt to the Clemson 31. Making his first appearance of the half, Shockley again quickly took advantage of the field position by passing for 10 yards to Gibson and then finding Terrence Edwards for a 24-yard touchdown pass.
The touchdown again tied the score at 28-28 and gave Edwards 20 career touchdown catches — a Georgia record.
Georgia lost linebacker Tony Gilbert midway through the opening half with an ankle injury. Gilbert wore No. 99 in a surprise tribute to David Jacobs, the former starting defensive tackle who suffered a stroke last season.
Then, midway through the third quarter, defensive end David Pollack had to be escorted to the locker room with an injury. Pollack had been Georgia's most effective pass rusher in the first half.
Charles Odum is the beat writer for Dawg Post in Athens. He has over 20 years of experience covering Georgia football. He can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com
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