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Clemson Football

No.1 Tigers struggle early, pull away to beat Orange 47-21

October 24, 2020
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CLEMSON, S.C. - From the moment that Syracuse sent the opening kickoff sailing into the Death Valley air, the Tigers appeared ready to slam their paws on the gas.

Lyn-J Dixon returned the kick to the Syracuse 47-yard line, and Tiger fans were excited to witness yet another manhandling of an inferior opponent.

But after going up 17-0 on the Orange, the Tigers eased up. Instead of kicking the affair into fifth gear, Clemson instead looked content to kick back and turn on cruise control. That lackadaisical approach wasn’t going to work against Dino Babers and his well-prepared Syracuse squad.

Saturday’s contest between Clemson (6-0, 5-0 ACC) and Syracuse (1-5, 1-4 ACC) prepared to be a thumping. Vegas stood firm, with Clemson resting as a 46-point favorite over Syracuse come kickoff time. Most predicted the Tigers would play the older brother's role on Saturday afternoon, bullying the younger Orange into a timid submission.

And by the looks of the final score, it would be easy to assume that’s precisely what happened. But Trevor Lawrence and co. will have plenty of film to cover this upcoming week, as Saturday’s 47-21 victory was arguably the Tigers’ most uninspired performance of the season.

“Every game’s not going to go perfect,” said Trevor Lawrence. “Guys aren’t always going to have crazy huge plays. Sometimes you just have to put drives together and finish. And we didn’t do a great job of that the first quarter and a half, but as the game went on we got better. But we didn’t play our best game today. It’s a good teaching moment for us.”

Courtesy of ACC Media Portal
Lawrence acknowledged the sluggish play of the Tigers to start, admitting that it was a teaching moment for the team.

EARLY MISTAKES

Okay, jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and calling it sloppy might sound a bit spoiled. And maybe that’s true. But there’s no question Dabo Swinney wasn’t happy with the Tigers' careless mistakes early into the first and second periods.

“There were just a lot of miscues,” said Swinney. “Some things we’ve really got to clean up. We always tell ourselves not to ‘lose to Clemson.’ And we have to control the things we can control. We just did some dumb things.”

A quick rundown of everything that went wrong for the Tigers before halftime hit:

-Travis Etienne fumbled the ball (again).
-Frank Ladson dropped a pair of completions (again).
-Trevor Lawrence threw two passes that Syracuse should have picked off but somehow fell incomplete.
-Lawrence threw a ball that the Orange did intercept, and Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams returned the poorly-aimed pass 39 yards for a touchdown.
-Will Spiers had a punt blocked and recovered at the Tigers’ 20-yard line. Just four plays later, Syracuse running back Sean Tucker took a handoff 7 yards into the end zone to bring the score within 17-7.
-B.T. Potter missed a chip-shot field goal from 37 yards out.

From the perspective of everyone involved, it was difficult not to acknowledge Clemson’s lack of sharpness early on. Still, a large portion of Swinney’s postgame press conference consisted of the 12-year head coach showering the Orange with praise.

“I knew [Syracuse] would come out and play hard,” said Swinney. “That’s just who they are. They were down 17-0 and they didn’t quit. I think that speaks volumes to the job Dino [Babers] does and the respect his players have for him and the program. But there’s a reason why you play four quarters. It’s not always going to be perfect, there are going to be mistakes along the way. The question is, ‘How do you respond?’”

While the Tigers still walked away victorious, much of it has to do with the fact that Syracuse was Saturday’s foe.

Misfires like the ones seen on Saturday come later in the season could spell trouble for the Tigers. When the day dawns for Clemson to square off with the Notre Dames and the Ohio States of the college football world, the coaching staff knows the Tigers can ill-afford to commit such vital errors.

“We are not entitled to just roll the ball out there and win,” said offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

Courtesy of ACC Media Portal
Dabo Swinney says Syracuse is a good football team, and that he had no doubts Dino Babers’ squad was going to come out ready to play.

SLUGGISH SECOND-HALF START

Being a fly on the wall at the half of Saturday’s game would have been a treat.

Clemson is known for doing a fantastic job of seeing areas that need improvement in the first half, going into the locker room, correcting them, and then coming back out looking charged up and refreshed.

That didn’t happen against the Orange.

One might argue that the Tigers came out playing worse in the second half than they did in the first. After trading three-and-outs on the first two possessions, Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper heaved a pass down the right sideline to a streaking Nykeim Johnson.

Several long strides and 83 yards later, Johnson was in the end zone for another Syracuse TD, one which defensive coordinator Brent Venables owned the blame for.

“I should have been a little more conservative there,” Venables admitted. “Our guys were getting lined up late and I put them in a stressful call. I’ll go home and punch myself in the face for that.”

That deep score was the longest The Tigers had allowed all year, and it cut the Clemson lead to just six points at 27-21. There wasn’t a single whisper that could be heard inside Memorial Stadium, as the only audible noises were the angst-filled groans of frustrated Tiger fans.

Clemson needed a jumpstart, a jolt of life to refill the energy that Syracuse had sucked out of Death Valley. The third quarter clock was ticking, and something had to change soon.

Courtesy of ACC Media Portal
Orange quarterback Rex Culpepper’s 83-yard touchdown pass brought Death Valley to a hush, as Syracuse brought the game to a 27-21 score.

TURNOVERS SAVE THE TIGERS

Enter Andrew Booth, Jr.

Two drives after the Syracuse deep ball, Bryan Bresee and Mike Jones, Jr. ripped the ball out of the hands of a scrambling Rex Culpepper.

Booth saw the ball as it bounced outside of a sea of orange and white jerseys, and the cornerback had his eyes set on six. He scooped up the loose football and dashed into the end zone, sending the Valley into a frenzy loud enough to pass for its usual 80 thousand capacity.

After the clutch touchdown from Booth, the sailing was far smoother for the Tigers.

When the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, it was the defensive unit that saved the day for Clemson. After Booth got the ball rolling, the Tigers forced two interceptions on the next three drives from the Orange.

On the first, Mike Jones, Jr. decided it was his turn to play the hero. The sophomore linebacker broke on a wayward throw from Rex Culpepper and intercepted the ball in stride. Jones turned on the burners and darted down to the Orange 3-yard line, setting up Travis Etienne’s third touchdown of the day just three plays later.

The very next drive, Syracuse busted a long reverse all the way down inside the Clemson 10-yard line. The Orange would have scored a touchdown on the play, were it not for safety Jalyn Phillips making a sprawling touchdown-saving tackle. The following snap, Culpepper made another errant throw and Phillips came down with the pick, as the ball floated straight into his arms in the back of the end zone. The sophomore's interception sealed the envelope on a Tiger victory.

“I loved the play by Jalyn,” raved Dabo Swinney after the game. “What a great effort, just getting the kid down, and then coming back and making the pick. That’s what it’s all about.”

Brent Venables echoed Swinney’s sentiments.

“What a great example and message. That’s why you play to the whistle, finish the play and play with great effort.”

Even though the offensive unit managed to conjure up 47 points, the Tiger defense was the glue that held the game together for Clemson. Aside from the deep touchdown pass halfway through the third, Venables’ men held tight while the offense attempted time and time again to sort itself out.

“I thought our guys came ready to play,” Venables said. “I loved our mindset… we took this game very serious.”

Courtesy of ACC Media Portal
Brent Venables’ unit helped carry the weight for the Tigers on Saturday, forcing four Orange turnovers.

NOTES

-Trevor Lawrence didn’t have his most productive game of the season, but he did more than enough to see the Tigers through. Lawrence finished the day 27-43 passing, racking up 289 yards with two touchdowns and a pick.

-Travis Etienne will have to wait at least one more week to break the ACC’s all-time rushing yard record. Etienne accumulated 86 yards on 16 attempts, leaving him 43 yards short of former NC State ball-carrier Ted Brown. However, the lack of yardage didn’t stop Etienne’s magnetic pull to the end zone, as the senior running back hit pay dirt three times.

-Amari Rodgers led the Tigers in both receptions and receiving yards Saturday, catching the ball eight times for 91 yards.

-For the fourth time in six games for the Tigers, a tight end found the end zone. Davis Allen was again wide open down the middle of the field, as Lawrence connected with the sophomore for a 17-yard second-quarter score.

-Brent Venables’ defense forced four turnovers against the Orange: three interceptions and a fumble. It’s only the 17th time in school history the Tigers have forced four or more turnovers in a game.

-Nolan Turner picked off his third throw in his last four games, returning a Culpepper pass to the Orange 13-yard line in the first quarter.

-B.T. Potter went 2-3 on field goals, connecting from 24 and 36 yards out while hooking an attempt from 37.

-Will Spiers averaged an impeccable 53.6 yards on five punts. Spiers also executed a fake punt in the second quarter in which he rushed for a first down.

-Xavier Thomas recorded his first sack of the season, slinging Rex Culpepper to the ground for a one-yard loss in the third quarter.

-Andrew Booth’s third-quarter fumble return for a touchdown was the second of Clemson’s season after linebacker James Skalski took a Citadel loose ball to the house on Sept. 19.

Courtesy of ACC Media Portal
Travis Etienne’s three touchdown rushes helped power the Tigers to victory.

FINAL WORD

While it certainly won’t cut it as the season churns on, a lackluster performance from the Tigers on Saturday handled the job.

“It was a sloppy win, but I’d rather have a sloppy win than a loss any day of the week,” remarked Swinney. “It’s not easy to win. I’m proud of our team for responding and handling some adversity. We haven’t had much, so that was good to see.”

Next Up: A Halloween date between the Tigers and the Boston College Eagles, set to air at noon on the ACC Network.

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No.1 Tigers struggle early, pull away to beat Orange 47-21

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