Clemson eventually flips the script on Syracuse's ground game

Clemson eventually flips the script on Syracuse's ground game

Football

Clemson eventually flips the script on Syracuse's ground game

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Clemson held Syracuse to just seven points in the first half Friday at the Carrier Dome, though it wasn’t nearly as suffocating a performance as the scoreboard might have indicated to that point.

That was particularly true when it came to the Orange’s running game. It was strength against strength as Syracuse put the ACC’s top rushing offense against a Clemson defense allowing the third-fewest rushing yards per game in the league. The Tigers hadn’t allowed more than 148 yards on the ground all season.

But Syracuse had the ACC’s leading rusher as well as the league’s most dangerous running quarterback, and it showed early. Sean Tucker had 791 rushing yards coming in and added 75 to that total in the first quarter, including a 52-yard scamper on the Orange’s opening drive.

By the time the first half was over, Syracuse had racked up 138 yards on the ground — 36 more than what Clemson was allowing on average coming in. The Orange’s average yards per carry? A whopping 8.6.

It was far from the stingy showings the Tigers’ defense have put on display for much of the season, and it could’ve been worse had Tyler Venables not ended the Orange’s first drive with a red-zone interception.

“I hate it that in the first half we got on our heels on the road,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We’ve got to play better defense.”

That’s what Clemson did in the final two quarters, at least when it came to keeping the Orange from running wild.

Venables credited Syracuse with some of the things it schemed up in the running game, but Clemson adjusted at halftime. Part of that included alternating between three- and four-man fronts more than they did in the first half to give the Orange some different looks at the line of scrimmage, but being in the right place helped, too.

“We fit our gaps better. And when you’ve got a box player (like Tucker), you’ve got to box him,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We knew that coming in here. If you don’t do your job against this bunch, they’re going to (take advantage).”

The result? Just 27 rushing yards for the Orange in the second half. Syracuse understandably tried to run it nearly as much over the final two quarters (14 attempts) as it did in the first half (16), but the Orange did have a run longer than 11 yards in the second half.

And for the first time in a long time this season, quarterback Garrett Shrader was never a factor for the Orange on the ground. Shrader was fresh off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and averaging more than 5 yards per carry coming in, but he never came close to being a dual threat against the Tigers. He ran seven times for 10 yards with his longest covering just 4 yards.

“I’d say we won that matchup,” Swinney said.

As the first half showed, it wasn’t a perfect defensive performance, though it went beyond just Syracuse’s early success on the ground. Tyler Venables at one point was flagged for a late hit on Shrader out of bounds to help extend an Orange possession. Cornerback Malcolm Greene vacated his coverage zone too early against a scrambling Shrader with Syracuse facing third-and-15 early in its final possession, resulting in a conversion for the Orange. There was also that 62-yard touchdown Shrader threw on a seam route against a cover-3 look midway through the fourth quarter that got Syracuse back within a possession.

“It was a good route for that coverage and a good ball, but we didn’t do what we needed to do to protect ourselves,” Brent Venables said. “We’ve got to do a better job schematically and technique-wise at protecting the stress of that call, and we didn’t do that. Guys are out there guessing at what routes are coming instead of reacting to what we’re seeing.”

But the Tigers eventually got back to their old form against the run, which was on display until the end. Syracuse’s final possession reached Clemson’s 31-yard line, and with the Orange facing third-and-2, they called Turner’s number one more time. But Venables brought linebackers James Skalski and Baylon Spector on a blitz.

Spector dropped him for no gain, forcing the 48-yard field-goal attempt that missed the mark in the final minute.

“Just coming out, making some adjustments, being more physical and just playing our football,” Spector said. “Doing the things our defense does well.”

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