CLEMSON, S.C., SEPT. 19 -- It was more a matter of sloppy rain and grievous errors than heroics when No. 8 Clemson and No. 18 Georgia got together for their dreaded face paint rivalry. But clutch-hearted kicker David Treadwell's 21-yard field goal with two seconds to go transformed all the slipdowns and poor decisions into something wonderful today, a thrilling 21-20 victory for Clemson.

The Tigers (3-0), a team some have marked as eventual national champions, were mystified when they found themselves trailing the hated Bulldogs (2-1) by 20-16 late in the fourth quarter. So was a neon-orange, rain-slickered crowd of 82,500 at Memorial Stadium, better known as Death Valley, which booed the Tigers when they could not even score with a first and goal from the 5-yard line midway through the quarter, backpedaling eight yards on a delay of game penalty and a falldown by quarterback Rodney Williams.

But Clemson's No. 1 defense in the nation caught quarterback James Jackson for a safety with 5:38 to go and, off the ensuing free kick, the Tigers drove 53 yards in nine plays to Treadwell's fourth three-pointer of the day. Clemson's defense had decisively beaten an offense statistically second best in the country, and avoided the kind of upset that can be a season-wrecker.

Forgetting for a moment some monumental mistakes, Clemson ultimately did what good teams do: won on a bad day. Even CBS had its trouble with the nationally televised contest, an electrical fire causing it to lose its picture for seven minutes in the third quarter.

"We found a way to win, whether it was one point or a half point," Coach Danny Ford said. "I don't even know what the final score was."

Treadwell kicked field goals of 30, 43 and 29 yards in addition to his winner. Clemson's only touchdown came on a 38-yard scoring run by fullback Tracy Johnson in the second quarter.

Georgia was fortunate to lead as late as it did, considering that Clemson possessed the ball for 22:39 out of the 30 second-half minutes, spending almost all of its time on the ground and getting 261 of its 337 yards via the rush. But the Bulldogs had scored unexpectedly on Nathaniel Lewis' 76-yard punt return in the second quarter, and with field goals of 21 and 28 yards by Steve Crumley, had a 13-13 halftime tie. With 8:59 left in the fourth period, Rodney Hampton scored on an eight-yard run set up by Jackson's 36-yard pass to tight end Kirk Warner.

But as it turned out, Georgia and Coach Vince Dooley were capable of fouling up worse than Clemson. It was Dooley who, on second and 10 inside the Bulldogs 1, called for Jackson to roll out in the end zone, where he was downed for two Clemson points.

"I gave them the safety. I never should have called it," Dooley said. "It was a dumb play on my part to even think about it. I don't know if I've ever felt as bad, losing a game for a team that played this hard. It was absolutely all my fault."

Clemson's respected defense was ultimately vindicated by that safety. But not before it gave up 268 yards to the Bulldogs after holding teams to an average of just 19.47 inches per carry (granted they were Western Carolina and Virginia Tech). Georgia's Lars Tate, leading the nation at 175 rushing yards a game, managed 84 yards on 19 carries.

Because of that defense, and talented backs such as Terry Allen (97 yards, 16 carries) and veteran quarterback Williams, the general presumption about Clemson was that if it could defeat Georgia, it would have nothing but interstate between it and an undefeated season. The Tigers have only a handful of not particularly troubling Atlantic Coast Conference opponents remaining, and eight home games. Hello national championship?

Not yet, not judging by this game. Treadwell's four field goals were not an indication of prowess so much as an indictment of his team's inability to score a touchdown from inexcusably close in. He was forced to kick his 29-yarder when the Tigers couldn't convert that first and goal on the 5 after Georgia's Lewis fumbled a fair catch. Treadwell was lucky to get a chance at the game-winner, for Clemson had used its last timeout with 12:12 still to play, trying to avoid a delay penalty.

Anyway, Treadwell established himself once and for all as a great timely scorer, because he has now probably saved more games for Clemson than Danny Ford or any other member of the team. Just last season in Athens, he defeated the Bulldogs with his 46-yard field goal in the last second, 31-28.

In his career at Clemson he is seven for seven on field goals in the last eight minutes, although earlier in the fourth quarter today he missed from 42 yards.

Following that miss, Georgia mounted its drive to Hampton's eight-yard run. Hemmed in on the sidelines, he slipped past three linemen and turned the corner.

But Clemson immediately responded with the safety that swung the momentum. It was thanks in part to Rusty Seyle's 43-yard punt, which cover man Chinedu Ohan tipped and John Johnson caught a foot from the goal line.

Two plays later, Jackson was cornered and collapsed on by strong safety Gene Beasley and James Lott to make it 20-18 with 5:38 to go.

"The whole defense was thinking safety," Beasley said. "We just overpursued, and I came in. I was surprised he rolled out."

John Brantley, Georgia linebacker, said of Clemson's winning drive, 53 yards all by ground: "We thought we were good enough to stop them, but they ran it at us, ran it at us, ran it at us and we couldn't do anything about it . . . "

Georgia 3 10 0 7 20 Clemson 3 10 3 5 21

G -- FG Crumley 21

C -- FG Treadwell 30

G -- Lewis 76 punt return (Crumley kick)

C -- T. Johnson 38 run (Treadwell kick)

C -- FG Treadwell 43

G -- FG Crumley 28

C -- FG Treadwell 29

G -- Hampton 8 run (Crumley kick)

C -- Safety, Beasley and Lott tackled J. Jackson

C -- FG Treadwell 21

A -- 82,500.

Georgia Clemson First downs 15 19 Rushes-yards 43-157 56-261 Passing yards 111 76 Return yards 76 8 Passing 9-19-0 6-16-0 Punts-average 4-31 4-42 Fumbles-lost 3-1 3-1 Penalties-yards 3-35 5-40 Time o

RUSHING -- Georgia: Tate 19-84, J. Jackson 13-49, Hampton 4-10. Clemson: Allen 16-97, T. Johnson 11-72, McF

PASSING -- Georgia: J. Jackson 9-19-0, 111 yards. Clemson: R. Williams 6-16-1, 76.

RECEIVING -- Georgia: Warner 2-43, Thomas 3-28, Tate 2-20. Clemson: Cooper 4-55, Jennings 1-17.