As he watched Syracuse run out the final six minutes and 10 seconds Friday night, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was not surprised his defense, one of the best units in the country the first six weeks of the season, could not stop the Orange.
“That’s how we played all night,” Venables said.
The three plays that cemented the second-ranked Tigers’ 27-24 loss in the Carrier Dome was a fitting testament to how they played all night. With the game in the balance and desperately needing to get the ball back to its offense so it could have a chance, the defense could not get off the field.
After getting the ball back at their own 41 with 6:10 left in the game, three times on the final drive Syracuse (4-3, 2-1 ACC) faced third down and all three times it converted, including once on third-and-11 and another on a third-and-eight.
“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,’” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said.
Of course the Orange deserve a lot of credit for that as well. They racked up 440 yards of total offense, were 8-of-19 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down. It is a stark contrast from last year’s game in Death Valley when the Tigers (6-1, 4-1 ACC) held them to 277 total yards in a 54-0 win.
“A year ago we shut them out and this year we could not stop them,” Venables said. “It is a tale of two years so we have a lot of work to do obviously.”
As good as Syracuse played, Clemson played just as bad. The Tigers had missed tackles, pass interference penalties, lined up offside and had two personal fouls for hitting the quarterback late. There also was a ton of missed assignments, blown coverages and times when the defense just could not get lined up fast enough.
“Obviously, we did not have them ready to play,” Venables said. “Syracuse came out ready to play. They played a heck of a game. They coached them up and had them ready and we didn’t.
“We lacked discipline from the get go. We had three personal fouls, PIs all over the place, offsides, we can’t do the little things right. If we can’t line up when the ball is snapped and play within the rules, then this will not be the last loss that we have this year. We have to coach them better, play with more discipline. We did all the little things wrong tonight and that starts with us as coaches.”
Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 278 yards on 20-of-32 passing, including touchdown passes of 23, 66 and 30 yards. The 23-yard touchdown pass was a result of a missed tackled on running back Dontae Strickland in space, while the 66-yard score to Ervin Philips was the result of a busted coverage. The 30-yard touchdown to Steve Ishmael was the result of their guy beating the defense.
“Those are layups,” Venables said. “You are not doing the little things right. You are trying to do a little too much and bad stuff is going to happen. Anybody, scout team, Syracuse, the 49ers, anybody is going to take advantage of you if you are not doing the little things right.
“We did a poor job tackling, poor job putting our eyes where they belong, falling for all kinds of double moves. I did a poor job or preparing them and getting them ready. We just played with no discipline. Every time we tried to get back in the game we would line up offside, get a PI or hit the quarterback out of bounds, just all the little stuff you can’t do and play average football let alone good football and good enough to win.”
Venables admits this one loss does not take away the Tigers’ goals. Clemson can still win the ACC Atlantic Division. It can still win an ACC Championship and it could still possibly make it back to the College Football Playoff. However, there are no more mulligans.
“Yeah, everything is still sitting in front of us, but you have to correct all the little stuff,” Venables said. “What led to this and why we are doing all the little stuff wrong? We have to get those things corrected and put them in a better position to have success.”