Clemson, SC – For over a year, Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence were the quarterbacks in the spotlight. And Chase Brice? Dabo Swinney praised him to the media, repeating “Don’t forget about Chase Brice”, but few took him seriously. Five weeks later, he would make the play that saved Clemson’s playoff hopes. [Disclaimer: I thought he was a fine and underrated player, I did not think he would be pressed into action this soon].
A similar feeling to the Georgia Southern game was in the air – but instead of an impending hurricane, it was a cloud of mystery regarding the mental state of the team.
The questions were soon answered, but Clemson fans didn’t like what they saw at first.
Clemson’s string of slow starts continued, but this was not a week the Tigers could afford to start slow. Syracuse was the team that capitalized on their mental lapses last year, and the start of the game didn’t prove to be any different.
Dino Babers’ scheme gave Clemson fits – and Eric Dungey directed the offense masterfully before an awkward third and long play in the red zone forced the Orange to settle for a 35-yard field goal by freshman Andre Szmyt.
The risks and rewards of starting freshman Trevor Lawrence were encapsulated in the first two plays of Clemson’s first drive – a beautiful 19 yard pass down the middle to Tee Higgins was followed by a fumble on a run exchange.
After the weekly warm up drive, Clemson’s defense played with a vengeance and held Syracuse to -3 yards and another field goal.
It took fourteen minutes of sloppy football between two chipper teams in order for Clemson to take their first lead of the game and give Syracuse their first deficit of the 2018 season.
Lawrence and company marched their way down the field 60 yards to the end zone, with Etienne and the jumbo package (with Trevor Lawrence motioned out wide) earning the final yard of the drive.
The next drive started and ended with special teams miscues. Amari Rodgers muffed and recovered the punt return, Trevor Lawrence led the Tigers on a 11 play, 57-yard drive that ended when Greg Huegel missed a 47-yard field goal wide right.
On third and five, Eric Dungey exploited Nolan Turner’s missed coverage and threw a 51-yard bomb to freshman Taj Harris that lead to Eric Dungey rushing for the 1-yard go ahead score. Syracuse held a 13-7 lead in the middle of the second quarter with a chip on their shoulder.
Then the game changed and the teambecame more important than ever. Trevor Lawrence was sacked near Syracuse’s sideline and stayed down. The Tigers in orange worried – that was a given. But in a defiance of class and convention, the Syracuse Orange sideline cheered.
Syracuse tried to grind the clock and score six, but their 13 play, four minute drive that spanned 75 yards ended in another 32-yard field goal from Andre Szmyt. The score placed Syracuse up 16-7 with less than half a minute left until halftime.
Chase Brice threw a pass on first down for some inexplicable reason, but the rest of the half should have gone smoothly. Instead, Syracuse called their last two timeouts after Clemson’s two runs. The players were heading back to the locker room before being called out to finish the half. A converted fourth down by Travis Etienne ended the half and the score was 16-7 Syracuse.
The Clemson flag-bearer raced on the field to begin the second half, but the third quarter was filled with even sloppier football. Both offenses were ineffective and both quarterbacks threw interceptions.
Hunter Renfrow made a potential catch of the year on a 28 yard pass from Chase Brice to put the Tigers in field goal position on one of two drives that ended in Huegel field goals to make the score 16-13.
As everything else on this muggy afternoon, nothing was easy for either team.
After Clemson’s hard earned stop of the Orange, Amari Rodgers fumbled a punt return on the five-yard line – gifting Syracuse goal-to-go.
Syracuse almost ruined their big break with a disjointed set of downs, but Eric Dungey’s eight and one yard scrambles gave the Orange a 23-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
With the Tigers offensive struggles, a 23-13 lead seemed insurmountable. As AJ Terrell said, “The game wasn’t over. We all knew that we had a chance, especially as the home team. We really came together as a team.”
The world and the Orange weren’t ready for Chase Brice and company.
Brice threw two strikes to Ross for 31 yards, while Etienne channeled the stadium’s desperation into a 17-yard run and a 26-yard rushing touchdown. The lead was cut 23-20 with eleven minutes left, and the tide began to turn.
Hunter Renfrow returned punts (with fair catches) to cheers as both Syracuse and Clemson struggled on offense. Syracuse pulled a play from a fellow former Big East member: the infamous-from-Pitt shovel pass play. Unlike two years ago, the Tigers snuffed it out.
Throughout the second half, the Tigers offensive line and Travis Etienne put the team on their back. Every positive quote about Etienne by coaches and players echoed back and resounded truer than before.
Etienne praised the offensive line: “The offensive line created tremendous holes for us to just get out there and run free. Our job is to make the safety miss, and the offensive line helped us take that to the next level. Also, the receivers being who they are, they got some great blocks down the field and that just really helped us.”
And in turn, the offensive line praised the running backs: “If we do our jobs, they are going to run, and they are going to run hard. All of our running backs are great, and our offense is great. When we do our job, we know those running backs are going to go.”
Travis Etienne stole the show on the ground throughout the second half.
Clemson had the ball on their own five yard line. The Tigers had to go 95 yards in under five minutes to win. The march down the field was uneventful at first until they faced 4th and 1. They earned it with Etienne, but a penalty pushed them back to 4th and six.
Despite Clemson’s reliance on the run this afternoon, they passed when Syracuse expected a run.
Brice threw a beautiful 20-yard corner to keep the Tigers alive, and then bulldozed his way for another 17-yards on the ground in bulldozer fashion. His moxie was on full display.
The team effort was complete with a two-yard Etienne run shortly thereafter with less than a minute left to give the Tigers a 27-23 lead.
The defensive line revived Swag Surfin’ song to cheers of the crowd – a relic of the past. After a first down penalty on Syracuse, hero-of-the-future Xavier Thomas sacked Eric Dungey for an eight-yard loss to the five-yard line.
The Tigers held on for a 27-23 victory in one of Death Valley’s most unique games. The Tigers performed poorly most of the game, but the fans were on edge and filled with rage or elation depending on the moment.
This game gave fans an example of the word ‘team’. Demoted quarterback transfers? No problem. Freshman quarterback injured? Chase Brice makes a play of the year on fourth down. The passing game struggling? The Union (offensive line) has its best game yet as Feaster and especially Etienne violently ran to victory.
Passing is usually more important in football (statistics wise), but Clemson’s prowess on the ground proved invaluable at the end of the game, and Syracuse’s 250 yards through the air were not enough to secure the win.
Did the drama of the week impact Clemson’s play? Absolutely. But Clemson made the right plays at the right time in all phases of the game – a true team effort.
Similar to the Texas A&M game, the technique was shaky but the effort was undeniable. If the leader of that game leaves, it’s the next man up. While certain players stood out, this is a perfect example of the light switch turning on and a teammaking plays to win.
The most important game of the year? Wake Forest, because it’s the next one.
But the lessons from this game will last longer than a week or the next news cycle.
As Coach Swinney remarked, “What a game. It’s one that I’ll probably never forgot. I’m super proud of our team and staff. They faced a lot of challenges this week, obviously, but you saw our football team grow up today. You saw the heart of our football team today. We kept battling. Trevor [Lawrence] got knocked out of the game, and we put Chase [Brice] in there, who hasn’t played in critical situations before. I was impressed with the moxie of our team. Somewhere, Danny Ford is smiling because that was an old-school win. I really appreciate our crowd. We needed some energy, and they gave it to us.”
This is the game you tell your kids about, the game a coach uses to teach teamwork, and the turning point of the season.