The most bizarre thing about Syracuse's near-upset of Clemson was that, early on, Saturday's game had every look of the blowout most predicted it would be. It took only two plays from scrimmage and 33 seconds for the Tigers to take a 7-0 lead, and they were up 14-0 before two minutes had passed in the first quarter.
For the game's next 58 minutes, though, nothing went according to plan. To an outsider, it likely would've been difficult to pick out which team was ranked No. 1 in the country and which hasn't won a game in nearly two months. In fact, over those 58 minutes, Syracuse actually outscored Clemson.
Throughout, SU walk-on quarterback Zack Mahoney turned in a fine performance, leading a ground attack that looked as strong as it has at any point this season. But it was all for not; the Orange ultimately lost, 37-27, dropping yet another game they had opportunities to win.
"You can't spot the No. 1 team in the country 14 points in the first two minutes of the game," Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said. "We were disappointed with that. Once we washed that off ourselves, I thought our kids played extremely hard. I thought we played effective football."
After Clemson jumped ahead 14-0 — thanks to a two-play, 75-yard drive, a Zack Mahoney fumble and an ensuing 23-yard drive — the Orange answered back. On the heels of two Clemson lost fumbles, Syracuse took advantage with touchdown-scoring drives of 28 and 56 yards.
The Tigers would go on to take another 14-point lead into halftime, but in the middle of the third quarter, Syracuse cut Clemson's lead to 31-24 after Mahoney scampered into the end zone from 12 yards out.
It was the second touchdown of the day for Mahoney, who often times had little trouble moving the football against college football's fifth-best defense in terms of yards allowed per game. He went just 8-for-21 for 80 yards through the air, but he ran the ball 10 times for 76 yards, which included the two touchdown runs and another 30-yard scramble up the middle of the field in the third quarter to set up the second touchdown.
In all, Syracuse ran the ball 34 times for 242 yards, good for 7.1 yards per carry. And it was Mahoney, a walk-on formerly listed fifth on the depth chart, who proved to be the most consistently effective runner.
"I don't think I surprise myself with anything I do," he said. "We had seen on film some of the rushes they have that do open up running lanes, and fortunately I saw some of those today."
He saw one of those lanes early in the fourth quarter, when he ran to the left side for an 11-yard gain to the Clemson 13-yard line. At that point, the Orange trailed 34-24 and were in prime position to cut the lead to three points. They failed to get another first down, though, and settled for a field goal.
It was one of a few missed opportunities that plagued Syracuse. On the previous Clemson drive, with the Tigers up 31-24, they faced a 4th-and-2 from the SU 42-yard line. A stop meant the Orange would get the ball near midfield and have a chance to tie, but Clemson running back Wayne Gallman broke off a 14-yard run.
Then, after Syracuse had trimmed the lead to 34-27, Clemson started with the ball at its own 15-yard line. But the Orange failed to force the Tigers into a punt; on the drive's first play, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson sprinted up the middle of the field for a 39-yard gain. A few plays later, Tigers kicker Greg Huegel connected on a 42-yard field goal, essentially putting the game out of reach for SU.
And like its games against LSU, Virginia and Pittsburgh, Syracuse was a play or two or three from a victory on Saturday. But the fact remains that the Orange have now lost seven consecutive games and appear as if they could be staring down a second straight 3-9 season.
Said Shafer: "We just came up short, unfortunately."