October, Friday the 13th didn’t disappoint in excitement and penalty flags, but it disappointed Tiger fans as Clemson lost to Syracuse 27-24.
Kelly Bryant was playing hurt and it constrained the offense in the first half. While he started off hot by completing his first nine passes, he only completed four of his last eight before exiting the game with a concussion.
His ankle injury clearly hampered him and the offense because he couldn’t run the ball or escape the pocket.
Both teams started off with fast touchdowns, knotting up the game at 7-7 less than five minutes in. The first Clemson score was a 37 yard-run by Tavien Feaster.
After a hopeful three and out defensive stop, Clemson’s drive stalled and Alex Spence missed a 35-yard field goal. Two plays later Syracuse scored with a 66-yard deep bomb on a coverage bust.
A strange sequence of events led to Tanner Muse returning a 3rd and 31 fumble for a score, but Syracuse responded with a 21-yard field goal to go ahead 17-14 late in the second quarter.
Kelly Bryant was knocked out of the game at the end of the first half, ensuring the second half would be a harder fight.
Zerrick Cooper started the whole second half despite being listed as a co-backup with Hunter Johnson.
A 45-yard scramble by Eric Dungey and 30 yard passing score to Steve Ishmael highlighted a 75 second, 82-yard drive to put Syracuse up 24-17 in the middle of the third.
He couldn’t spark Clemson to any offensive success, with an uninspiring field goal drive and a 52-yard run by Etienne being the only meaningful drives in the half.
As always, David Hale’s interesting statistic sums Etienne’s brilliance: he has four fifty yard carries this year (more than 117 FBS teams) – on fifty total rushes this year at the time of the score. Clemson has had 4 total 50+ yard runs since 2013, and Gallman accounted for two of those in his career.
Near the end of the third quarter Alex Spence missed a 35-yard field goal, starting the chain of events that put the Tigers away.
Syracuse used six minutes and sixteen plays to march inside the red zone and kick what would be the game winning score with nine minutes left in the game.
Will Spiers had an excellent night punting the football, consistently pinning the Orange deep inside their own territory (including the one and seven-yard line).
Unfortunately, his quarterbacking attempt on a fake punt was one of the final nails in the coffin. On 4th and six on the Syracuse 41, he launched a hopeless deep bomb to Tanner Muse that was batted down.
It took six minutes and twelve plays but only 24 yards for Syracuse to grind out the win. They converted a three yard run on third and two, a thirteen yard pass on third and eleven, and a third and eight that was a third and three before a false start penalty to seal the game.
Syracuse took advantage of the opportunities that had been there all year against the Tigers, capitalizing on penalties, mental mistakes, and struggling quarterback play.
The Tigers only rushed 25 times for 113 yards, as the stressor of the quarterback run threat was nonexistent.
Without the Etienne and Feaster touchdowns, Clemson ran 23 times for 24 yards. Syracuse won on the line of scrimmage and dared the Tigers to throw the ball. With Kelly Bryant hurt and Zerrick Cooper ineffective, the Syracuse defensive game plan worked.
The Tigers completed 22-32 passes for 204 yards, which is far from enough to beat a team that halts the running game in its tracks.
Normally the Clemson defense is disciplined, aggressive, and focused, but it was a shell of its usual self tonight. While only allowing 162 yards rushing on 50 attempts, they let the Orange run the ball on them when and where it mattered most.
Eric Dungey had a heroic performance that displayed his toughness, mental ability, and accuracy. He completed 20 for his 33 passes for 278 yards and three scores while remaining calm and stepping up in the biggest moments.
The junior three-star quarterback from the weak football state of Oregon lead a significantly less talented team against the defending national champions and won – he is an excellent player.
Both teams had an absurd amount of penalties: Clemson had 10 for 104 and Syracuse had 13 for 115, yet Syracuse kept their focus finished the game.
All of Clemson’s goals are still in play – the division, state championship, and the conference championship. If they win out, they should easily make a New Years Six bowl. While talk of the playoffs is premature, Clemson is in control of its own destiny. Hypothetically, if they win out and win the conference it will be hard to turn them down.
But for that to happen, Clemson can’t afford many more mistakes. One loss can be overcome, but two losses sends a team out of the national title picture.
Clemson is a top two program in the country, but no game, season, or title is a given or entitlement. Everything is earned, and everything is played out on the field for a reason. Syracuse was undoubtedly the better team tonight and their program is on the rise. But don’t let a loss take away from the joy of watching these Tigers play, and support them as they return to Death Valley against Georgia Tech on October 28th.