DJ Uiagalelei’s off-script flip helps Clemson avoid tougher QB questions

ATLANTA — Georgia Tech was into this thing. And then Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who had been patchy at the start of what he hopes will be his buyout season, played the game-changing game.

Georgia Tech trailed 17-10 late in the third quarter Monday night, and there was upset potential in the air at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Yellow Jackets had started to show life on offense, and they were stifling No. 4 Clemson’s offense. On a third and a 6, they pressured and killed the former five-star. Except he wasn’t.

Uiagalelei pulled away from the rush and shoved a desperate fullback at running back Will Shipley as he went down. Shipley snagged first down, Clemson drove for a touchdown, and the Tigers could breathe a sigh of relief that this one wouldn’t come down to the final seconds like last year’s win over Tech.

“It’s a game we didn’t make last year,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said in his press conference shortly after celebrating on the field in front of the Clemson faithful with a helmet in leather on the head. “(Uiagalelei) is creative. It was a huge piece, and those are the pieces you have to do. Not everything goes according to the script.”

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The final was Clemson 41, Georgia Tech 10, which was the script. But how it happened was not. Clemson’s offensive shortcomings – an inconsistent line, an unstable quarterback and receivers who struggle to open up – were all exposed during the first 2 ½ quarters against a Georgia Tech team that should be near under. ACC floor. And given what we saw earlier in the weekend, at 17-10 late in the third, a biting finish wasn’t out of place.

But Uiagalelei made the improvisational play at Shipley that tipped the momentum and the Tigers exerted their superiority in the fourth quarter to close it out.

“I just saw Shipley there and threw him and he had a great run,” Uiagalelei said. “We went down and got a touchdown. It was a big play for us.”

Clemson entered the season ranked fourth, which if you believe preseason polls means they’re considered a playoff team. Of course, the Tigers were also considered a playoff team last preseason, until their offense collapsed and they lost three regular season games. Clemson sat out the ACC Championship Game after winning it six straight. The 10-3 finish was a step back from the sport’s penthouse, and the offseason was all about settling the offense after finishing 99th in the FBS in yardage and 82nd in scoring.

MORE: ACC quarterback outlook for 2022: Pressure on Uiagalelei

“We need a better passing offense and a better passing defense, and I saw those two things tonight,” Swinney said.

Uiagelelei took the brunt of the criticism last season, but the offensive line also struggled mightily and receivers were nowhere near Clemson’s national title teams. When five-star freshman Cade Klubnik signed up early, it was expected there would be competition for the QB position. But Swinney has made it clear that Uiagalelei is his man, and Monday night was his first chance to show things will be different in 2022.

He went 19 of 32 for 210 yards and a touchdown, with three sacks and a lost fumble.

Uiagalelei was shaking initially. He couldn’t handle a high slam that killed the first drive, and he fumbled on an engineered QB run on the second. He held the ball in his pocket and played timidly.

After a blocked punt set up the Tigers at Georgia Tech 5, it took four straight plays for Clemson to get into the end zone. The offense was limited to 50 yards on his first 17 plays.

“It was kind of the perfect scenario tonight,” Swinney said. “DJ had to fight through adversity and he made some great plays with his feet.”

With 5:15 to go and the game in hand, Swinney went to see his five-star freshman for a practice. And Klubnik took advantage of it. His first throw was a contested incompleteness along the sideline, his second a nice 20-yard completion on a rollout. It showed the ability to perform a read option, keeping a third to extend the reader. He capped it off with another rollout and a 3-yard touchdown to Will Taylor.

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He was 4 of 6 for 49 yards on the drive and displayed the attributes that will have Clemson fans pining for backup if Uiagalelei returns to form in 2021.

For now, it is clear that there is no competition. This is not a Michigan or Ole Miss situation. Swinney was happy to bring Klubnik in when the game was decided, and with two non-conference walkovers on deck at Furman and Louisiana Tech, Swinney is eager to get him to spend more time with the second unit.

And Uiagalelei made it clear he was excited for the first year.

“He did what he does in training,” Uiagalelei said. “He plays with a lot of confidence. It’s good to see. He’s a great player.”

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