No. 4 Clemson overcomes shaky offensive start to put away Georgia Tech in opener

ATLANTA – DJ Uiagalelei said last week that his mantra for the 2022 season is “roll the dice.”  

Monday night provided Uiagalelei with his first opportunity to do just that, and the result was what one might expect – he won some and lost some, but still finished with a winning night.

If Clemson fans tuned in to see their junior quarterback flash a remarkable transformation, they likely went home at least mildly disappointed following a 41-10 victory against Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

And if they tuned in to see their fourth-ranked football team roll to a convincing victory against the team picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the ACC’s Coastal Division, they probably left not fully satisfied.

Perhaps it was fitting that the game was held on Labor Day because Clemson’s offense certainly labored for much of the game, unable to find consistency, unable to muster a dominant push up front with its offensive line.

Perhaps it was only fitting, too, that it essentially was Clemson’s defense that was responsible for the Tigers’ first touchdown of the 2022 football season and the next-to-last score of the night – both coming a few plays after blocked punts set the offense up within the shadow of the end zone.

Based on what unfolded at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night, the offense appeared to be improved over a year ago, when it slogged through the first several games before finally springing to life near midseason. This year’s team had the benefit of not facing an eventual national champion in its season-opening game and is a good bet to be 4-0 when N.C. State rolls into town on Oct. 1.

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In the meantime, there’s plenty more work ahead for the entire unit, including Uiagalelei, who had a rough start against Georgia Tech. He fumbled, missed some receivers and didn’t exactly appear to be appreciably faster despite having shed 30 pounds since last year.

Uiagalelei’s ineffectiveness in the first several possessions had Clemson fans wondering if they’d see freshman phenom Cade Klubnik sooner rather than later. They saw him, but it wasn’t until mop-up duty with 5:15 left in the game, primarily because DJ stepped up his game.

Coach Dabo Swinney has made it clear that Uiagalelei is his guy, at least for the time being, and Uiagalelei did settle into a groove in the third quarter where he looked the part of the precocious freshman who filled in so admirably in Trevor Lawrence’s stead two seasons ago.

After Georgia Tech cut Clemson’s lead to 14-10 early in the third quarter, Uiagalelei guided back-to-back scoring drives and during one stretch completed 7-of-10 passes for 94 yards. He finished 19-of-32 for 209 yards for a 59% completion rate; serviceable.

“DJ had to fight through some adversity,” Swinney said.

He also seemed to sense that Swinney was sticking with him come hell or high water and for a good portion of the second half appeared to be at ease, confident in the pocket, eager to make plays and reassert himself.

Going forward, all bets are off, but for now it’s DJ’s job to lose and he seems to be enjoying his chances to roll the dice.

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