As the clock read 0:00, the final score read 41-6 in favor of the Clemson Tigers. Not exactly what the college football world or the Syracuse Orange fanbase thought would happen in the spring and as the season approached. Why would they?
Many of the experts had touted this as one of the most important games of the season with the winner likely having a clear path to the ACC Championship Game and a possible College Football Playoff berth. However, that’s why the games are not played on paper and as demonstrated Saturday night in front of a record crowd of 50, 248, Clemson is playing to make a statement and Syracuse has its work cut out for them.
Below, we highlight the biggest plays from the game in GIF form.
1. (13:21 - 1st) 3rd & 5 at Syracuse’s 30-yard line: When Syracuse took down Clemson in 2017 and nearly pulled off the upset in Death Valley last season, execution was key. On Saturday night, a problem that has persisted through a quarter of the year made an early appearance; wide receiver play specifically dropped passes. After forcing a Tigers three and out to begin the game, the Orange offense found themselves in a third down situation and in one of the few instances all night in which Tommy Devito had time in the pocket, he found a wide open Taj Harris over the middle only for the ball to hit off of his hands. Missed opportunities like this would end up being one of the biggest takeaways of the night.
2. (13:21 - 1st) 3rd & 5 at Syracuse’s 30-yard line: Clemson utilized something that Syracuse has often employed throughout Dino Babers’ tenure to keep the offense moving; short, quick passes. With the assistance of a pass interference penalty on Ifeatu Melifonwu, the reigning national champions found themselves on Syracuse’s side of the field. Trevor Lawrence got Andre Cisco to bite on a fake and lofted a pass over his head to Amari Rodgers for a 16-yard score. Brian Ward’s defense opened the game with an aggression not demonstrated at Maryland and it cost them here.
3. (9:16 - 1st) 3rd & 10 at Syracuse’s 38-yard line: Devito running for his life was one of the themes from Saturday’s game. Facing a third and long, the quarterback was flushed from the pocket due to a breakdown in protection and was quickly hunted down by Isaiah Simmons for an eight yard loss.
4. (8:10 - 1st) 3rd & 6 at Clemson’s 27-yard line: Following a three and out in a possession marked by more penalties and another sack of Devito, Clemson sought to create some distance on their ensuing possession. Facing a third and six, Lawrence rolled out of the pocket and found a favorable matchup in 6’4” Tee Higgins being covered by all 5’8” of Antwan Cordy. Adding insult to injury here, Syracuse racked up another penalty in the form of a roughing the passer to give Clemson 50 yards total on the play. The Tigers would add seven more to the scoreboard shortly after to conclude the possession.
5. (4:10 - 2nd) 2nd & 10 at Syracuse’s 25-yard line: After a series of defensive stalemates only broken up by field goals by both teams, Syracuse put together their best drive of the night. Facing more pressure from Clemson’s defensive front, Devito stepped up and out of the pocket where he found Moe Neal uncovered in the flat for a 50 yard gain to wake up the Dome crowd. The Orange’s difficulties in the red zone forced them to settle for three points to shrink the Tigers lead to 11.
6. (11:05 - 3rd) 1st & 10 at Clemson’s 22-yard line: Deep in their own territory, Trevor Lawrence hoped to give Clemson some breathing room by going to trusty target Tee Higgins. Anticipating the back shoulder throw, Chris Frederick correctly read the play and picked off his pass to give the Orange prime field position at the Tigers nine yard line.
7. (11:04 - 3rd) 1st & Goal at Clemson’s 9-yard line: Clemson giveth and Clemson taketh away. Frederick’s interception positioned Syracuse to make this a one score game by starting off deep in the red zone. However, Tommy Devito gave the Tigers the ball back with an ill advised pass to Abdul Adams who was in the end zone. Coach Babers, like many at the Dome (broadcast included) and at home, wondered why Tommy had attempted the pass instead of throwing it away. Upon further review, Mario Goodrich had fallen to the ground prior to Devito rolling out to the right and throwing the ball, only to appear at the last second to end any hope of scoring that drive. This one will be debated as it may have been safer to live to play for another down.
8. (9:42 - 3rd) 3rd & 1 at Clemson’s 13-yard line: If you make a mistake against a team of Clemson’s caliber, they’ll quickly make you pay for it and that they did. What looked like a play that was stopped cold in its tracks turned into an 87 yard touchdown after Cordy took a poor angle for his tackling attempt and Evan Foster failing to get Rodgers out of bounds. What could have been a 17-13 game was now a 24-6 contest.
9. (9:42 - 3rd) 3rd & 1 at Clemson’s 13-yard line: If not for Travis Etienne, the Syracuse defense would have scored its first touchdown of the season and one more than the offense posted all night. Rolling to his right, Trevor Lawrence must have been confused by the orange helmets as he passed the ball to Trill Williams who was sitting on his throw the entirety of the play.
10. (5:43 - 3rd) 4th & Goal at Clemson’s 3-yard line: When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Syracuse might be an iced tea type of team as both times they were in the red zone off of interceptions, they came away with a total of zero points. The offensive line’s pass blocking woes were made very apparent against Clemson, but their failure to provide any push in the run game is something that will likely be looked at in the coming week as on three consecutive plays, the Orange weren’t able to muster any gains before Tommy Devito’s attempt to catch the Tigers defense off guard with a bootleg were thwarted.
11. (4:55 - 3rd) 1st & 10 at Clemson’s 27-yard line: Trevor Lawrence might a bully because he saw Antwan Cordy covering Justyn Ross and went right at the undersized defender. Much like Jamal Custis last season for Syracuse, Clemson has multiple receivers of whom Lawrence can throw the ball up to and see if they can come down with it; a “safety valve” as former SU defensive back Julian Whigham would call them. The Orange defense would hold the Tigers to a field goal on this drive, but given the performance of the SU offense, this would be more than enough to ice the game.
12. (13:21 - 3rd) 4th & 2 at Syracuse’s 33-yard line: The futility of the offensive line this night was amplified by Brent Venables’ schemes to get into the backfield. With their backs against the wall and time not on their side, Dino dialed up a play on fourth down at SU’s 33. The Orange front five was yet again overwhelmed by a three man front with linebacker help in the form of a disguised blitz via Isaiah Simmons. In total, Devito was sacked a total of eight times and could have eaten the turf more. As the Orange move forward, pass protection is an area in which the line has to improve in if the team is to have any chance of winning much less clinching a bowl berth.
With a record of 1-2 through their first three games, the Orange see themselves in a situation where they must quickly regroup and focus on their upcoming opponent, the Western Michigan Broncos. While Vegas currently has Syracuse as a 5.5 point favorite over the Broncos, this isn’t a team that they can take lightly as in 2018 they were given all they could handle in Kalamazoo by Tim Lester’s squad. A victory this Saturday would not only bring them back to .500, but it would also help the current perception of the program.