Despite the pressure on him, and odds against him, redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Brice walked onto the field with an air of confidence for Clemson’s final drive Saturday vs. Syracuse at Death Valley.
The second-ranked Tigers were backed up deep in their own territory at the 6-yard line, down by three points with 6:06 remaining in the game, and needed a score to stave off an upset loss to the Orange.
Though things didn’t look great for Clemson, Brice wasn’t worried as he stepped into the huddle.
Two possessions earlier, the Tigers marched 75 yards in less than two minutes for a touchdown, and Brice was starting to find his rhythm after taking over for an injured Trevor Lawrence late in the first half.
“I just told the guys, ‘Look, we did it once before, a couple drives ago. Let’s just go ahead and do it again,’” Brice said. “And they were all on board. The offensive line was like ‘let’s run it, let’s pound it down their throat.’ And when they started saying that, it just brings a lot of confidence in you and the running back and the coaching staff, for a veteran O-line to do that.”
Brice wasn’t concerned with the 94 yards that Clemson had to go for a game-winning touchdown. Rather, he had his sights set on picking up 10 yards at a time.
“I didn’t really try to think about going the whole 94. I was really just focusing on let’s get first downs,” he said. “I knew there was plenty of time on the clock. We had a couple timeouts, and our running game, we were going to gain some yards on each play. So, I was pretty confident in that, and then it just kind of happened where we got in a rhythm.”
The Tigers indeed gained a rhythm thanks to Travis Etienne and the running game, gashing Syracuse’s defense for 79 rushing yards on what turned out to be the game-winning drive in Clemson’s 27-23 victory.
But as crucial as the ground game was, it was Brice who made the biggest play of the drive through the air.
On fourth-and-6 from Clemson’s 48-yard line, Brice dropped back to pass and delivered a dime to Tee Higgins in between two defenders for a 20-yard completion and first down that kept the drive alive.
“I knew third-and-long and medium, and then fourth down, they ran a specific coverage,” Brice said. “And so I just tried to look off the safety a little bit. I kind of knew I was either going to Tee or the flats. So, the corner didn’t really sink that much and gave just enough room for me to fit it in there to 5.”
A play later, Brice tucked the ball and scampered 17 yards for another first down that set up Clemson in the red zone at Syracuse’s 15-yard line. Four players after that, Etienne put a bow on the 13-play, 94-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 41 seconds remaining.
“I had a lot of adrenaline, and I went inside of Tee’s block,” Brice said of his run. “I knew I could get a few more yards, but not knowing who was coming from the side… They always preach that you don’t see the guy who’s coming to knock the ball out. So, once I cut inside, I just made sure I protected the ball as much as I could.”
Brice stepped up in a big way for Clemson after Lawrence suffered an injury late in the second quarter when he was hit along the sideline by Syracuse defensive back Evan Foster. The Loganville, Ga., native finished 7-of-13 passing for 83 yards.
In a matter of days, Brice went from being Clemson’s third-string quarterback to being Lawrence’s backup after Kelly Bryant decided to transfer mid-week, then being the guy who the Tigers had to rely on Saturday.
For the past two years since he stepped foot on campus, Brice has prepared like he’s the starter each week, no matter where he has been on the depth chart — and that showed as he helped lead Clemson to a critical win.
“That’s just what they preach, our coaching staff – it’s like every day, just ‘prepare, prepare, prepare,’” the redshirt freshman said. “I just think it’s trust your coaches and trust your instincts to prepare, because you never know when your opportunity is going to come. Mine came Saturday, and they always preach about when your opportunity comes, how are you going to respond? So, I just tried to do my best.”