Defensive gem lifts No. 5 Georgia past No. 3 Clemson, 10-3

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — (AP) — Christopher Smith returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown and No. 5 Georgia turned in a defensive effort for the ages, toppling third-ranked Clemson 10-3 on Saturday in the opener for both teams.

The Bulldogs held the Tigers to 2 yards rushing and sacked D.J. Uiagalelei seven times to position themselves for a run at the College Football Playoffs.

Uiagalelei, who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, finished 19 of 37 for 178 yards with one interception. He bobbled snaps, was out of sync with his receivers and spent most of the day under heavy duress against a relentless Bulldogs pass rush.

Even when Georgia turned the ball over, the Tigers couldn’t take advantage.

With Clemson down 7-0 in the third quarter, Baylon Specter appeared to give the Tigers they momentum they needed when he intercepted J.T. Daniels’ pass at the Georgia 33. But after a short gain on first down Uiagalelei was sacked on consecutive plays and Clemson was forced to punt.

[Mecklenburg County continues to see increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations ahead of Labor Day weekend]

Clemson didn’t score until 9:08 left in the game when a 44-yard reception by Joseph Ngata an a defensive pass interference penalty set up a 22-yard field goal by B.T. Potter, helping the Tigers avoid their first shutout since 2003.

Despite being dominated all game, the Tigers had a chance to tie with 7:35 left when they took over at their own 25. The Tigers would reach midfield and Dabo Swinney went for on fourth-and-5, only to see Uiagalelei’s hurried pass fall incomplete.

From there, the Bulldogs ran out the clock.

Georgia’s defense, which dominated the line of scrimmage, set the tone early with Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean registering third-down sacks on Clemson’s first two possessions.

In a first half dominated by defense -- and some pretty impressive punting — it was only fitting the only score came when Smith jumped in front of a Uiagalelei pass intended for Justyn Ross and raced 74 yards to the end zone to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead at halftime.

(WATCH BELOW: Thousands gather in uptown for Georgia vs. Clemson game)

SURPRISE GUEST

Former Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, made a surprise appearance at the game. Lawrence will start his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 12 when they open the season at the Houston Texans.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Georgia will make a leap into the top four, and possibly the top three after No. 2 Oklahoma struggled to beat Tulane. Clemson could drop out of the top five after being held to 180 yards.

TAKEAWAYS

Georgia: The defense is going to be a force to reckoned with. It held Clemson to 2 yards rushing and had seven sacks, barely giving Uiagalelei a chance to set up in the pocket. This may very well be the best defense in the country.

Clemson: One of the concerns entering the game was how the Tigers were going to replace the production of running back Travis Etienne. Tigers running backs Kobe Pace and Will Shipley combined for just 14 yards on eight carries. On the flip side, Clemson’s defense is strong, holding Georgia to just three points.

UP NEXT

Georgia: Hosts Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.

Clemson: Hosts South Carolina State on Saturday.

Local tourism execs looking for big win from Clemson-Georgia

A matchup of college football powers Clemson and Georgia over Labor Day weekend has Charlotte hospitality businesses cheering a much-needed influx of visitors, the Charlotte Business Journal reported.

Both schools will bring top-five rankings to Bank of America Stadium as well as fans from campuses located within a three- to four-hour drive. The Sept. 4 game will be shown nationally in prime time on ABC, and ESPN’s “College GameDay” touring pregame show will air from Romare Bearden Park.

(WATCH BELOW: Uptown road closures for big college football weekend)

Tickets are long gone. Priced at $150 to $300 each, on resale sites they’re fetching $200 to $450 in the upper deck and $500 to $1,500 in the lower level.

Hotel and restaurant operators in and near uptown told CBJ during recent interviews that Clemson-Georgia is living up to the tourism hype. Most hotels are sold out that Saturday and nearly full Friday for the holiday weekend.

A lower-profile game on Sept. 2 at Bank of America Stadium -- Appalachian State versus East Carolina -- is providing pockets of additional business earlier in the week.

(WATCH BELOW: Fans take over uptown ahead of Duke’s Mayo Classic)

George Photopoulus operates the French Quarter restaurant in uptown Charlotte. His business was hit hard by last year’s shutdown.

“I had a meeting with my staff,” he told Channel 9. “I said, ‘Listen. Hold tight. This is going to blow over in a few weeks, maybe a month.’ Here we are 18 (months) -- how many months later?”

Photopoulus is welcoming the much needed boost this week thanks to college football.

“And best of all, at a time when the hospitality industry has just gotten crushed,” he told Channel 9.

The Charlotte Sports Foundation promotes the Queen City so it can host major sporting events.

“Our whole mission is to bring economic impact to Charlotte and high-profile sporting events,” said Danny Morrison, executive director for the nonprofit.

In 2019, their efforts yielded nearly $80 million in revenue.

Clemson’s run of dominance has made the Tigers the first power-conference team to win six straight league title games, The Associated Press reported. It’s also the longest run of ACC titles since Florida State won at least a share from 1992-2000 to start its stay in the league under late coach Bobby Bowden.

Last year’s loss at Notre Dame – playing in a one-year stint as a full ACC member amid the COVID-19 pandemic – marked Clemson’s first league loss in three years. Overall, the Tigers have 10 straight seasons with double-digit wins, six straight berths in the College Football Playoff and two national championships under Dabo Swinney.

This year’s team has big names to replace – namely No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and two-time ACC player of the year Travis Etienne at running back. That will mean plenty of attention on new starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who had big performances with Lawrence out briefly due to COVID-19 protocols last season.

But there’s a defense with Skalski among nine returning starters. That includes a defensive line with seven players who’ve started games, including Myles Murphy, Brian Bresee, Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster, Tyler Davis.

“You see a bunch of young guys that have really grown and improved with their confidence, improved with their understanding, improved with their technique, just playing within the system and letting the system help them,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “So it’s been very pleasing to see the discipline show up.”

If that continues into the season, the Tigers will be ready to celebrate in Charlotte, North Carolina again.

THE FAVORITES

Atlantic: Clemson. The Tigers are 52-3 against ACC teams during their current reign, with only one of those losses – in 2017 at Syracuse – coming in its division.

North Carolina State was picked second in the Atlantic, followed by Boston College, Florida State, Wake Forest, Louisville and Syracuse.

Coastal: UNC. The Tar Heels start with a top-10 preseason ranking for the first time since 1997, which was the final season of coach Mack Brown’s first stint with the Tar Heels. They have 18 starters back on offense and defense.

“I like to take it with a tremendous amount of pride,” Brown said of high expectations. “Our fans can walk around right now with their chest stuck out because we’re a preseason top-10 team. I don’t take that as pressure.”

Miami was picked second in the Coastal, followed by Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke.

TOP PLAYERS

Sam Howell, North Carolina: The junior quarterback is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy as well as to be one of the top NFL draft picks. He enters this year as the preseason ACC player of the year while powering UNC’s high-scoring attack, and Brown has already indicated this will be final season with the Tar Heels.

D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson: Lawrence’s sophomore successor has size (6 feet, 4 inches and 250 pounds) and threw for nearly 800 yards in two midseason starts last year. “He’s a great leader and everybody has confidence in him,” Swinney said. “He makes everyone around him better.

D’Eriq King, Miami: The quarterback is returning for a sixth season despite suffering a serious knee injury suffered in last year’s bowl loss. He ranked in the Bowl Subdivision’s top 25 in total offense and passing efficiency.

Payton Wilson, N.C. State: The linebacker led the league at 10.8 tackles per game (13th in FBS) and was one of nine players nationally with at least 19 tackles in a game.

RESTOCKED

Thirteen of the 14 league teams have a returning quarterback with starting experience. The exception is Duke, which is set to turn to Gunnar Holmberg as the Blue Devils try to take better care of the football after committing an FBS-worst 39 turnovers last year.

BACK TO NORMAL

The season marks a return to the two-division format as well as an eight-game league slate. The ACC last year brought Notre Dame – a football independent but a member in all other league sports – in for a year of division-less play and 10 conference games.

STARTING OVER

Virginia Tech is working on a new bowl streak after missing the postseason for the first time in nearly three decades. The Hokies opted out of the postseason last year, ending a 27-year run of bowl games and closing a five-win season in Justin Fuente’s fifth season.

TURNAROUND?

Syracuse and coach Dino Babers face the challenge of stopping a massive slide just three years after a 10-win season. The Orange went 5-7 in 2019, then went just 1-10 last year while ranking last in the ACC in scoring offense (17.8), total offense (265.3 yards) and total defense (463.9).

The Associated Press and the Charlotte Business Journal contributed to this article.

(WATCH BELOW: College football doubleheader kicks off in uptown)