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Clemson Football

No. 1 Tigers hope to avoid nightmares of the past vs. Orange

October 23, 2020
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CLEMSON, S.C. - The last time Syracuse came rolling into Death Valley, the Clemson Tigers' fabric appeared to be tearing at the seams.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant had just announced his intention to transfer days prior. Even after leading the Tigers to a CFP semifinal birth in 2017, the depth of the talent gap between Bryant and freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence was too gaping to ignore.

"Trevor had to have an opportunity to be the guy," Swinney said after making the switch. "I didn't anticipate Kelly leaving. I thought Kelly would stay and keep playing and compete. But he chose to move on.”

Once the game against the Orange began, however, things only got worse. Syracuse came into Tigertown prepared to stand toe-to-toe with the giant, managing to jump out to a 13-7 second-quarter lead. And with just over five minutes left until half-time, the unthinkable happened.

Trevor Lawrence — starting his first-ever college game — scrambled outside of the pocket to avoid a sack. He juked a few Syracuse defenders as he rolled left, tiptoeing along the sidelines, attempting to salvage a few yards on third down. As Lawrence stumbled forward to regain the line of scrimmage, an onrushing Syracuse safety leveled the freshman head-on.

After the hit, Trevor laid motionless on the ground. You could have heard the breathing of Tiger fans inside Death Valley if they weren’t holding them. An eery hush fell over Memorial Stadium as Clemson faced the one predicament that Dabo Swinney had feared the most all week long.

Down Kelly Bryant, the injury left the Tigers with just two options at quarterback. One of those options was Hunter Renfrow, legendary Clemson slot receiver and apparent emergency quarterback. The other option — and the man the Tigers put their faith in — was another freshman, Chase Brice.

Brice stepped into the game and delivered for the Tigers. The backup quarterback did precisely what was asked of him, handing the ball off to Travis Etienne most of the game while completing passes when called on. Trailing 23-20 with just over five minutes remaining in the game, Brice led the Tigers on an improbable 13-play, 94-yard touchdown drive to seal a 27-23 victory and keep Clemson’s undefeated season alive.

“I’ll never forget this one,” said Swinney after the game. “This [game] will rank up there with the biggest ones I’ve ever had. You might say, ‘It’s the fifth game of the year.’ But it’s more than that, because I saw a team grow up. I saw a team stand up for each other and have each other's back and just not quit.”

The Tigers would ride that momentum the rest of the year, getting Lawrence back the very next game and cruising to a 15-0 record and a national championship.

A lot has changed since then.

Brice now dons Blue Devil colors on Saturdays, while Syracuse contrasts with the program it was in 2018. The Orange would go on to finish that season at 10-3, 6-2 in conference play.

Syracuse will prepare to walk — or perhaps, limp — back into Death Valley on Saturday for the first time since that fateful afternoon. The Orange are riddled with injuries and sit at 1-4, fresh off a 38-21 throttling to Liberty. As of Thursday, Dino Babers’ squad is a 46-point underdog against Clemson.

But Dabo Swinney isn’t paying attention to any of it. Instead, he’s reminding his team to stay focused. Swinney’s philosophy is to help his guys treat every week as if it’s their “biggest game of the season,” no matter who the opponent may be.

“It’s easy to look at their record and say ‘Oh, well, they're not a good team,’” said Swinney. “But that’s not how we operate. For us, every game is the biggest game. That’s just how we go about it.”

And despite Syracuse’s woeful record this season, Swinney knows just how dangerous of a program the Orange can be.

The Orange took down the Tigers at the Carrier Dome in 2017, 27-24. That historic upset was the most notable of the college football season and the launching pad from which the Tigers’ current streak of 26 straight ACC victories began. The following season, Syracuse nearly replicated history, and they likely would have done so were it not for the aforementioned late-game heroics of Chase Brice and Travis Etienne.

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Chase Brice became a folk hero for the Tigers against Syracuse in 2018, leading Clemson to a 27-23 come-from-behind victory.

On paper and in Vegas, Saturday’s matchup predicts to be as lopsided as they come. But for Swinney and the Tigers, they’ve learned their lesson. They’ll be preparing as if Ohio State or Notre Dame were the ones booking the trip to the Southland. That’s the standard Swinney has set in Clemson and the standard by which the Tigers have found unrivaled success.

“We have a lot of respect for [Syracuse]. We know first-hand here at Clemson that Syracuse is a team that can beat you.”

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No. 1 Tigers hope to avoid nightmares of the past vs. Orange

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