SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Dabo Swinney did not try and sugarcoat it all. The Clemson head coach pointed to several reasons why his football team lost to an unranked Syracuse team, 27-24, at the Carrier Dome on Friday.
“Even when we win, there are always a lot of mistakes to correct. There were a lot tonight, especially on third down and with the penalties. But first and foremost, me,” he said. “I have to have the team ready to play.”
The Tigers were not ready, especially on defense. Led by quarterback Eric Dungey the Orange totaled 440 yards on a Clemson defense that was yielding just 264.3 coming in.
“Just really right of the gate, defensively, we really did not have the juice tonight for whatever reason,” Swinney said. “They were better than us. Their quarterback, I thought, played lights out. We played man coverage and (Steven Ishmael) made a bunch of plays. It seemed like it was either a pass interference call or a completion the whole game.”
Dungey completed 20-of-32 passes for 278 yards, three touchdowns with no interceptions, while also running for 61 yards on 21 carries. Ishmael had six catches for 73 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown reception with 7:12 to play in the third quarter.
But like Swinney said, the tempo of the game was set right from the start. Syracuse (4-3, 2-1 ACC) took the opening drive and went right down the field and scored, capped off by Dontae Strickland’s 23-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on screen pass to cap a 10-play, 72-yard drive.
It marked the first time in seven games this year an opponent scored on its opening drive.
“We knew coming into the game they were going to tempo us,” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “This is what they do. They run a very fast pace offense. But a lot of those things, we just were not there mentally. We had bad technique, bad discipline on different plays. This is a very fast paced game, but you have to give it to them. They knew where to attack us and stuff like that and we did not play well in areas they had to attack.”
Clemson’s defense did not play well at all. Syracuse always seemed like it was one step ahead of the Tigers all night. Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) never had the lead, and anytime the Orange needed to make a play, they did.
“It has been working for us all year, but just today, it did not work,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “Plan and simple, it was Syracuse. They were a better team tonight. I give a lot praise to them and a lot of respect. They did it. Congrats to them. That is a hell of a win against us. We are not an easy out at anytime so they did their thing tonight. I have a lot of respect for them.
“At quarterback, (Dungey) he is a heck of a player. He earned my respect tonight. They just did the little things that we did not do tonight.”
They also outmuscled Clemson, especially when it mattered most. Following an ill-advised fake punt by Will Spiers, Syracuse took over at its own 41 with 6:10 left in the game and clinging to its 27-24 lead. The Tigers never got the ball back.
“It definitely hurt your pride because you kind of pride yourself on getting off the field on third down and obviously the clock is running and you want to get off the field and give your offense a chance to come back and win the game for you,” Ferrell said.
The Orange converted three straight third down conversions against a Clemson defense that for the last five years has prided itself on getting off the field. On third-and-two from his own 49, Strickland ran up the cut for three yards to the Clemson 48 to keep the drive going. Three plays later, this time on third-and-11 from the 49, Dungey found Ishmael on the sideline for a 13-yard gain and another first down.
Three plays player, this time third-and-eight from the Clemson 34, Dungey kept the ball and ran eight yards up the middle or a first down, sealing perhaps the biggest victory in school history for the Orange.
“It was very tough for us,” Ferrell said. “That was a very sad moment for us, but hats off to Syracuse. They did what they had to do. They got the first downs. We just did not capitalize on the plays.”
The loss snapped Clemson’s 11-game winning streak, as well as its 12-game road winning streak, which dated back to November 15, 2014 when it lost at Georgia Tech. Syracuse also became the first ACC Atlantic Division team to beat Clemson since September 20, 2014, when the Tigers lost at Florida State – a span of 20 games.
“Prosperity is a terrible teacher so when you have games like this, you really look at yourself and take a step back and say, ‘Hey, you are not as good as you thought you were.’ So it is really going to help us,” Ferrell said. “Me, being a leader on the team, and not just the defense, it is going to be my job to let everyone know that.
“We can bounce back from this. Everything we want to do is still on the table and we just have to come back and put the work in and get ready to do it.”