ATLANTA — The halftime stats were almost comical. Clemson looked as though it was going against the scout team, not a fellow Atlantic Coast Conference school.
Finally, the sort of performance everyone has been expecting from the No. 5 Tigers.
Deshaun Watson threw for 304 yards, including a pair of touchdowns during a dominant first half that carried Clemson to a 26-7 victory over Georgia Tech on Thursday night.
After sluggish wins over Auburn and Troy, and a practice-like rout of FCS school South Carolina State that meant nothing, the Tigers (4-0, 1-0 ACC) won at Georgia Tech for the first time since 2003 to set up a huge showdown with No. 3 Louisville.
“We came in focused that first half,” Watson said. “We just wanted to finish the deal.”
Watson threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams and a 9-yarder to Jordan Leggett with just 4 seconds left before halftime to complete a stunningly lopsided showing that wasn’t entirely reflected in the 23-0 lead. Wayne Gallman added a 1-yard TD run.
At halftime, Clemson was up 347-22 lead in total yards and 19-3 in first downs, having run 56 plays to only 21 for the home team. Georgia Tech (3-1, 1-1) was outgained 442-124 overall.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve won here,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ll take it.”
This was a virtual repeat of last year’s meeting at Clemson, where the Tigers raced to a 33-10 halftime lead on the way to a 43-24 victory. Both times, they totally dominated the line of scrimmage.
“They’ve done it to us two years in a row up front,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “They kicked our butts.”
Clemson backed off over the final two quarters, and the Yellow Jackets avoided their first home shutout since 1957 when Dedrick Mills scored on a 2-yard run with 13:21 remaining.
Even when Georgia Tech came up with a big play, it wound up costing points. Lance Austin intercepted a pass in the end zone and tried to bring it out — only to be whacked inadvertently by teammate Corey Griffin, knocking the ball loose.
Austin fell on it in the end zone, but that was a safety for Clemson. It was a far cry from a prime-time game last season, when the defensive back returned a blocked field goal 78 yards for a touchdown on the final play to give Georgia Tech a stunning victory of Florida State.
There wouldn’t be an upset on this night.
Clemson: Don’t read too much into the sluggish showing in the second half. It was only natural that the Tigers let down a bit after dominating the first two quarters. For sure, this was just the sort of confidence-boosting performance that Clemson needed heading into their game against Louisville.
Georgia Tech: After opening with three straight wins over mediocre opposition, the Yellow Jackets don’t seem to have made much improvement over last year’s 3-9 debacle. Johnson’s triple-option offense was totally manhandled and increasingly looks like a gimmick that other teams have figured out. Poor recruiting seems to have caught up with the Yellow Jackets when they face elite competition.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Clemson ran more plays in the first half than Georgia Tech did in the entire game (52). Even more troubling for the Yellow Jackets, 19 of their plays failed to gain or lost yards. The Tigers finished with 82 plays.
The home crowd did get a chance to cheer a couple of times in the first half. It didn’t have anything to do with the game.
New athletic director Todd Stansbury , a former Georgia Tech football player whose hiring was announced earlier in the day, was introduced during the first quarter. Another alum, pro golfer Matt Kuchar, received loud applause when he came out during a break wearing his Olympic bronze medal.
After slipping a bit in the rankings off their first two wins, the Tigers should stay right where they are — maybe even move up a spot or two — when the Associated Press poll comes out next week.
Clemson: When Louisville visits Death Valley on Oct. 1, it will have all the makings of a national playoff game. Assuming the Cardinals (3-0) get by Appalachian State on Saturday night, two unbeaten powerhouses will meet to establish the pecking order atop the ACC.
Georgia Tech: No. 15 Miami (3-0) and longtime nemesis Mark Richt visit Bobby Dodd Stadium on Oct. 1. Richt is in his first season as the Hurricanes coach after 15 years at Georgia, where he went 13-2 against the Yellow Jackets.