By Will Vandervort.
With 10:41 to play in the third quarter, the 80,031 people inside Death Valley were stunned. Strong safety Darius Kelley had just intercepted Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt at the Syracuse 38 and returned it to the Clemson 42.
With a three-point lead, the Orange was in position to stun the 20th-ranked Tigers. But the Clemson defense had something to say about that.
On the very next play from scrimmage, linebacker Stephone Anthony dropped back in coverage and picked off A.J. Long’s pass at the 42 and returned it eight yards to midfield.
Clemson finally took advantage of a ‘Cuse mistake and drove the ball 49 yards on 12 plays to the one-yard line. Though Clemson was unable to score a touchdown, Ammon Lakip’s 18-yard field goal tied the game and changed its course.
The Tigers (6-2, 5-1 ACC) then took the lead on the next drive as Lakip kicked his third field goal of the game – a 41-yard kick with 3:30 to play.
After that, the defense did what it has done all year, they dominated.
They held the Orange (3-5, 1-3) to 170 yards, including 88 rushing yards in a 16-6 victory. The defense also had four sacks in the win and forced three turnovers.
“We keep finding ways,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “This is a battle-tested group. They’re tough minded.”
It marked the fourth straight week Clemson held an opponent under its season average and the fifth time in the last six games.
The Tigers put the game away in the fourth quarter when Stoudt threw his first touchdown pass in 147 pass attempts—89 completions—a 19-yarder to tight end Stanton Seckinger. That concluded a 7-play, 73-yard drive that took just 2:14 off the clock.
But before Anthony’s interception, the Clemson offense was struggling. They turned the ball over four times—three in the first half—after giving away just six all season.
Clemson had just 157 yards of total offense at halftime.
“It was a very frustrating first half,” Swinney said. “We just had too many miscues. The turnovers were critical. It’s not often that you’re minus one in the turnover margin and still win.”
But Wayne Gallman and the running game took over in the second half. The freshman rushed for 84 yards in the second half on 22 carries. The Tigers rushed for 166 yards and had 375 total. They had more than 18 minutes of possession time in the second and 34:54 overall.
Clemson ran out the final eight minutes and 17 seconds to end the game.
“We just kept grinding it out,” Swinney said.
The Tigers will get the next 12 days off before they head to Winston-Salem, N.C., to play Wake Forest on Nov. 6.
“Physically, I’m going to give the team a couple of days off here,” Swinney said. “We’ve got two road games coming up, so we need to get dialed back in.”