SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Kelly Bryant’s left ankle was 100 percent when he started Friday’s 27-24 loss at Syracuse.
However, Bryant did not stay healthy for long. In fact, when trying to roll right on a second-and-one play from the Clemson 47 late in the first quarter, the junior could barely run on the ankle, running out of bounds for no gain.
“We were trying to move the pocket with him and you could tell he was not quiet himself,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “There were a couple of third downs and if Kelly’s ankle isn’t bothering him he goes and gets those first downs.”
But Bryant’s ankle was bothering him. He later tried to roll out in the second quarter to his right, but again, he limped trying to get away from the defense.
“We got into some shorter situations where we were not able to convert,” Elliott said. “Obviously, when you have his ability to run then it definitely helps. But we are not going to use that as an excuse other guys have to pick up the load.”
When Bryant tried to scramble a couple of times, he easily got caught, including when Syracuse defensive tackle Chris Slayton slammed him to the ground, knocking him out of the game with a concussion with less than a minute remaining in the first half.
“He was ready to go,” Swinney said. “He kind of tweaked it today a couple of plays earlier and then he got the concussion by being slammed into the ground… I hate that he got hurt.”
With Bryant hurt, Clemson went with redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper over freshman Hunter Johnson.
“Zerrick has been the guy since we came out of camp,” Elliott said. “He came out and he did a good job with it. Before the game he was managing the system so we stayed with him.”
Cooper completed 10-of-14 passes for 88 yards. He did lead Clemson on two scoring drives. One ended with a 30-yard Alex Spence field goal and the other was a result of a 52-yard Travis Etienne touchdown.
Following Etienne’s touchdown, and with score tied at 24, Cooper led the Tigers (6-1, 4-1 ACC) on what appeared to be another scoring drive. However, on third-and-12 from the Syracuse 21-yard line, Cooper threw the ball too high to a wide open Hunter Renfrow over the middle, which would have had the first down and possibly a touchdown.
Later in the fourth quarter, on third-and-six from the Syracuse 41, Cooper again overthrew an open Renfrow across the middle with a little more than six minutes left in the game. Clemson did not get the ball back.
“They just sailed on me,” Cooper said.
Swinney thought Cooper played well and the plan all along was to stay with Cooper as long as he played well. The coaches’ decision not play Johnson surprised the fans, especially after Johnson went 5-for-5 for 49 yards and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cannon Smith.
“Zerrick is the second guy. He has been the second guy,” Swinney said. “I actually think he played pretty good. He did some good things.
“We did not help him in a couple of situations. We had a couple of missed assignments and had some mistakes. So we will evaluate and move forward.”