That’s why they play the game, right?
No. 2 Clemson and Syracuse battled in a tight matchup at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., on Friday night, and all eyes were on first-year Tigers starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, who sustained a second-half ankle injury in a home win over Wake Forest last Saturday afternoon.
While coach Dabo Swinney was encouraged all week that his starting signal caller would play, his offensive staff had to make sure that the team’s backup quarterbacks were prepared as well as possible in case Bryant couldn’t go or re-aggravated the injury. That was the biggest storynline surrounding this game coming into the rare ACC Friday night matchup.
On the ninth anniversary of Swinney taking over as Clemson’s interim coach, the Tigers were able to get a start out of Bryant. But it didn’t last long. And it didn’t end with the usual Tigers victory.
Bryant, the electric runner with a strong arm, suffered an apparent concussion on the team’s final possession of the first half. He turned a struggling Tigers offense over to redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper, who was unable to keep the team’s undefeated mark alive. Clemson, which never led in the contest, failed in all three phases in a 27-24 road loss.
Clemson looked shaky defensively on Syracuse’s first drive. Orange coach Dino Babers saw his offensive unit pick up big chunks of yards along a 10-play, 72-yard drive that finished with a Dontae Strickland 23-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass from Eric Dungey. It came on a Tigers blitz on third-and-15 that also featured a missed tackle by cornerback Mark Fields.
The Tigers answered, though, as the offense showed off its power and speed with Tavien Feaster going untouched for 37 yards for a score to cap off a 3-play, 62-yard drive. For some odd reason, though, the Tigers did not look to the ground nearly as much as they needed to against the Orange.
Bryant initially looked very comfortable as a passer, enjoying a stretch of 9 completions in a row. However, he had a slight limp and clearly did not have the same mobility. Alex Spence missed a 35-yard field goal — showing that replacing injured veteran Greg Huegel will be a tough task moving forward. It would be a momentum changer as Dungey and the Orange found a bust in coverage, which left the middle of the field wide open, and Ervin Philips hauled in a 66-yard pass against a defense that had allowed an average of just 64.3 passing yards in the first half.
The defenses started to shine, though, as Dorian O’Daniel continued his elite play while Clelin Ferrell remained active. Then, the Tigers made the big defensive play they needed to wrest momentum. Strickland, who had logged more than 300 touches without a fumble in his career, lost possession to set up a 63-yard scoop-and-score fumble return by Tanner Muse. It tied the game at 14 and thwarted an Orange drive that had advanced to the Tigers’ 20-yard line before penalties drove them back. It was also Muse’s second career big return against the Orange having brought back an interception 64 yards for a score in the meeting last season.
After Syracuse recorded a Cole Murphy 21-yard field goal, Bryant returned to the field after being sidelined for a good portion of the third quarter while Syracuse dominated possession. When the Tigers took over, Bryant’s ankle continued to bother him as he struggled to get away from pressure. He also wasn’t helped by drops from his receivers. The Tigers looked out of sync offensively as the coaching staff limited Bryant’s runs yet seemed to stray from their deep pool of rushers.
Finally, with 41 seconds left in the first half, Bryant remained on the field for several minutes before needing help walking off. Gimpy and unable to protect himself, Bryant clearly should never have been on the field on Friday night.
Syracuse held a 17-14 halftime lead, and it was the first time Clemson trailed at the half against an unranked team since 2014, also against Syracuse. Cooper — and not Hunter Johnson, who out-performed Cooper in relief last week — started the second half behind center. The Tigers didn’t do much offensively, but they were able to take advantage of a bad Syracuse punt to put together a 7-play, 29-yard scoring drive that was capped by a Spence 30-yard field goal.
But the surprisingly leaky Clemson defense struck again, as a Dungey 45-yard run down the sideline set him up for a 30-yard scoring strike to Steve Ishmael, who leads FBS in receptions and receiving yards, to put a lot of pressure on the backup-led Tigers offense. A kickoff out of bounds set the Tigers up at their own 35-yard line, where they realized that their biggest strength right now — especially with a backup quarterback — was the ground game. Freshman Travis Etienne busted off an electrifying 52-yard run to tie the game once again, his sixth touchdown of the season and fourth rush of 50-plus yards in his very young career. By comparison, Wayne Gallman had a total of 2 as a Tiger.
A three-and-out that featured Syracuse losing 16 yards set Clemson up with a very short field, but Spence missed a 38-yard field goal. It would be a critical miss.
Tied at 24 after three, the Orange went 16 plays for 68 yards over 6 minutes, 4 seconds to set up a Murphy 30-yard field goal. Bryant and the Clemson offense took over at its own 25 down 3 with 9:41 remaining, and it was able to get to the Syracuse 41, but punter Will Spiers threw incomplete to Muse on a real head-scratching fake punt.
The Clemson defense, which was on the field for 34:52 of Syracuse possession, gave up a huge third-and-11 at its own 49 when Dungey hit a wide-open Ishmael for a 13-yard gain. The Orange would run out the clock, sending the Tigers to their first loss since their setback to Pitt in the 2016 title campaign.
It was certainly a poor performance all around by the defending champions, who still remain a real player in the College Football Playoff conversation. However, there are many questions heading into the bye week.
Will Bryant be healthy for the stretch run of the year? Can the secondary, off of its best game of the season last week, regain confidence and bounce back? Is Spence an albatross at the kicker position?
Good thing that bye is on the horizon.
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