Clemson’s defense didn’t play up to its lofty standard against Syracuse on Friday night at the Carrier Dome, and it cost the Tigers in a 27-24 loss.
Entering the game, Clemson ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense (11.3 points per game) and eighth in total defense (264.3 yards per game). On Friday, the Tigers allowed 27 points, 440 yards and saw their 11-game winning streak snapped.
“They just out-played us,” Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said. “The best team doesn’t always win. Syracuse came out and just out-executed us. We had opportunities, and we had a lot of missed opportunities.”
Syracuse recorded six plays of 20 yards or more, including touchdown passes of 23, 30 and 66 yards from quarterback Eric Dungey, who completed 20 of his 32 passes for 278 yards.
Clemson was plagued by missed tackles and coverage busts. Cornerback Mark Fields was unable to bring down Dontae Strickland in open space on his 23-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, and Ervin Philips was wide open for a 66-yard touchdown later in the period due to a lapse in coverage.
The Tigers were also penalized 11 times for 119 yards. In the fourth quarter, an offside penalty against defensive end Austin Bryant on third down helped extend a Syracuse drive that ended with the eventual game-winning 30-yard field goal by Cole Murphy.
“Most of the plays they had weren’t even really competitive plays,” said O’Daniel, who finished with 10 tackles including a tackle for loss. “They were just guys running freely. So, things that were completely controlled by us. It’s not a knock to them, but I think we lost to Clemson.”
Syracuse sealed the upset with a 12-play drive that took the final six minutes and 10 seconds off of the clock, and that’s what stings the most for O’Daniel and the defense.
“We put ourselves in the situation where we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win,” the senior linebacker said. “We didn’t give our offense a chance to go down and make a drive, our special teams go down and make a field-goal attempt, so we have to take some responsibility for that, some accountability for that. And ultimately, it is what it is.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talks all the time about having a “windshield mentality.”
Instead of dwelling on just their third loss in the past 40 games, the Tigers are looking to turn the page.
“Flush it. This game’s over,” O’Daniel said. “We can’t take back the loss, we can’t take back the mistakes, the missed tackles, the missed assignments. So just flushing it, learning from our mistakes and coming in Monday with a fresh attitude and focus on the next game.”
Clemson’s open date couldn’t come at a better time. The Tigers hope the upcoming week off allows them to get healthy and hone in for the game against Georgia Tech on Oct. 28.
“It’s definitely comfortable,” O’Daniel said of the bye week, “just knowing everyone can get healthy, kind of disengage a little bit, just get mentally recharged, physically recharged, and just really lock in and focus on the upcoming opponent.”
The Tigers accomplished their first team goal when they won the season opener versus Kent State on Sept. 2. Despite the loss, the rest of Clemson’s goals — winning the ACC’s Atlantic Division, beating rival South Carolina, winning the ACC title and winning the closer — are still on the table.
Clemson’s loss to Pittsburgh last season didn’t prevent the Tigers from accomplishing all of their goals and winning their first national title in 35 years. But like last season, Clemson knows its margin for error is slim.
“There was no room for error after (the Pittsburgh game), and unfortunately, it had to be like this this year,” O’Daniel said. “We don’t have any room for error going forward, and we know that, so by default, I think it will add some sense of edge or chip on the shoulder that we didn’t already have.”