Report card: Grading Clemson’s 27-24 loss to Syracuse

We should’ve known playing on Friday the 13th couldn’t have ended up well.

In a game Clemson was favored to win by 21 points, the Tigers never held a lead at any point. Syracuse’s offense ran circles around one of the nation’s best units, and another injury to Kelly Bryant forced Clemson to figure out how to play yet another significant part of the game without its starting quarterback.

Add in a few special teams miscues, and the recipe for disaster was right there.

Offense — C-minus

All reports indicated Bryant was healthy enough to play in this game, but how accurate that was is up for debate. He clearly didn’t look 100 percent in the first half. His normal shiftiness and agility running the ball was almost entirely gone. Bryant appeared to be favoring that sore left ankle and wasn’t his usual self.

Then, he left the game for the second week in a row when Chris Slayton slammed him to the ground, where he laid motionless for an uncomfortable amount of time before making his way to the locker room. With Bryant, the Clemson offense had trouble moving the ball, but without him, the problems exacerbated. Zerrick Cooper, not Hunter Johnson, played the rest of the game, and while he was 10-of-14 passing for 88 yards, he misfired on a few third-down throws that stalled a couple of drives that Clemson desperately needed to score on.

The Tigers were outgained, 440-317, and the largest sources of offense came from big-play runs by Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, which were the only offensive touchdowns Clemson scored all night.

Defense — D-minus

Clemson’s had problems before, but the Tigers been able to rely on the defense — which is, and has been, the backbone of this team. But Syracuse was able to impose its will in the trenches and run circles around the secondary, torching the defense worse than any other team has this season.

Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey was 20 of 32 for 278 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he added 61 yards on the ground. Receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips gave the banged-up Clemson defensive backs fits all game, including a few wide-open touchdowns.

The defense we’ve come to expect — a tenacious, gaping maw that swallowed up feeble attempts to move the ball with what looked like comical ease — wasn’t there. Dual-threat quarterbacks continue to give Clemson fits, but the Tigers have been able to overcome them because their own offense wasn’t as limited as it was on Friday night.

Tanner Muse’s fumble-recovery touchdown saved the defense from a failing grade, because it kept Clemson in the game. But other than that, there weren’t many positives to take away from this.

Special Teams — D-plus

One of these games, when the offense sputtered and the defense couldn’t stop literally everything on every drive, the special teams was going to have to come up big to pull out a win. The opportunity was there against Syracuse, but too many mistakes kept it from happening.

Alex Spence missed 2 of his 3 field-goal attempts, one of which was just not a great kick at all, and he didn’t have the best night on kickoffs.

Will Spiers’ punts pinned Syracuse deep in its own territory a handful of times, and flipping the field is always a terrific bonus to have. But the fake punt in the fourth quarter was an absolute head-scratcher of a decision, and regardless of whether that call came from Dabo Swinney or from Spiers, it made sure Syracuse had a short field to work with as it began salting the game away.

Overall — D

This is about the worst thing Clemson could’ve hoped for heading into the bye next week. Not only did the Tigers lose their first game of the year, but Bryant’s health is now in question even more than it was before the game.

Clemson drops to second place in the ACC Atlantic behind N.C. State, which makes that Nov. 4 date with the Wolfpack loom much larger than the Tigers hoped it would. However, there’s still a silver lining if you look hard enough.

Beat N.C. State, and Clemson’s in the driver’s seat once again assuming Syracuse drops one more conference game this year. And of course, Clemson doesn’t have to look back too far to see what could still happen down the road. The Tigers were able to overcome the loss to Pitt last year, and things still turned out all right. To be fair, that wasn’t a loss to a divisional opponent like this one was.

But just like then, the margin for error is razor-thin now.

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