Two things can equalize a game between a heavy favorite and an underdog … injuries and sudden changes of possessions.
Though top-ranked Clemson came into Saturday’s contest with Syracuse as a 46-point favorite, it was learned prior to kickoff that it would be without three of its star players on defense in linebacker James Skalski, defensive tackle Tyler Davis and cornerback Derion Kendrick. Then Heisman Trophy candidate Travis Etienne was banged up early in the second quarter and was in out of the game for much of the second and third quarters.
Throw in a blocked punt and a pick-six and suddenly the Orange found themselves down six points with 8:41 to play in the third quarter.
However, freshman defensive tackle Bryan Bresee prevented Syracuse from getting a massive upset as he stripped the ball from quarterback Rex Culpepper and cornerback Andrew Booth picked up the loose ball and ran 21 yards for a touchdown.
Etienne followed with a nine-yard touchdown run and Mike Jones’ near house-call on an interception set up a one-yard Etienne touchdown as Clemson finally pulled away for a 47-21 victory at Memorial Stadium in Clemson.
“The scoop and score was certainly a big play for us,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game.
The Tigers’ 26-point victory might have looked easy, but it definitely was not. The Orange had the ball with a chance to take the lead before Bresee’s strip-sack and Booth’s touchdown return with 1:26 to play in the third quarter.
“There were a lot of miscues,” Swinney said. “We did a lot of things we have not done. We always talk about taking care of Clemson. We can’t let Clemson beat us and today we did that.”
Syracuse (1-5, 1-4 ACC) pulled within six points when Nykeim Johnson hauled in an 83-yard pass from Culpepper with 8:41 to go in the third quarter. The Orange then stopped the Clemson offense on back-to-back possessions and had an opportunity to take the lead before Bresee closed the door on any kind of upset with the sack on Culpepper and his forced fumble.
With Etienne in and out of the game, the Clemson offense struggled. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed just 27-of-43 passes for 289 yards. Though he did throw two touchdown passes to Cornell Powell and Davis Allen, he also threw an interception which Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams returned for a touchdown.
“It was a sloppy win, but it was a win,” Swinney said.
His pass to Amari Rodgers with 1:30 to play in the half was thrown behind his star receiver and off his hands. Williams came up with the tipped ball and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. That made the score 24-14 with 1:18 to play before halftime.
Etienne, who came in needing 129 yards to break Ted Brown’s career-rushing record in the ACC, finished the game with 86 yards and scored three touchdowns. After leaving the game in the third quarter, Etienne returned to the field in the fourth quarter to score his last two touchdowns.
Before Bresee’s sack, Clemson struggled to get to Culpepper. Syracuse came into the game ranked last in the ACC in sacks allowed.
The Clemson defense was also a little off. The Orange totaled 325 yards on a Clemson defense that held Miami and Georgia Tech to 210 and 204 total yards the last two weeks. The Tigers were allowing just 264 yards a game prior to Saturday.
The good news for the Clemson defense is that it did force four turnovers. Syracuse led the nation in turnover margin and had five all year before Saturday’s game at Death Valley
After Lyn-J Dixon took the opening kick 49 yards to the Syracuse 47-yard line, the offense looked like it was going to roll. Lawrence connected with Cornell Powell for a 25-yard score, which the Clemson receiver did most of the work. Powell caught the pass, made a man miss and dove into the end zone for six points.
Clemson did extend its lead to 17-0 in the first quarter. B.T. Potter made a 25-yard field goal attempt following a Nolan Turner interception that set the Tigers up at the Syracuse 13. Then Etienne broke through the line for a 25-yard touchdown with 4:25 to play in the first quarter.
But the Clemson offense continued to misfire after that. Lawrence was high on a few throws and three of his passes were dropped. After one possession did nothing, Syracuse blocked Will Spiers’ punt, setting the Orange up at the Clemson 20.
Four plays later, Syracuse running back Sean Tucker ran the ball into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown, cutting the Clemson lead to 17-7 with 14:15 to play in the half.
Clemson extended its lead to 24-7 just before the end of the half when Lawrence found tight end Davis Allen wide open in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown pass with 2:54 to go.
Potter added a 37-yard field goal as time expired in the first half for a 27-14 lead.
Clemson will stay at home and will host Boston College at noon next Saturday.
A great gift for any Tiger fan. Just one of many great items available from Clemson Variety & Frame