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Final score: Clemson 47, Syracuse 21

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It was fun for a little while, anyway.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange hung around for three quarters against the Clemson Tigers, but the No. 1 team in the nation ultimately pulled away for a 47-21 victory on Saturday.

Clemson started fast, with a 25-yard touchdown from Trevor Lawrence to Cornell Powell in the first couple minutes, and then followed it up with a B.T. Potter field goal to make it 10-0 about mid-way through the first quarter. They’d tack on a Travis Etienne rushing score to go up 17-0, and it looked like the route was on. And then... Syracuse started pressing.

Following a blocked punt, Sean Tucker punched in SU’s first points early in the second quarter to make it 17-7. The teams went back and forth for most of the second after that, before Clemson added another TD to make it 24-7. But a late Trevor Lawrence interception was returned for a ‘Cuse score by Garrett Williams to get th Orange back within 10 points. The Tigers tacked on a field goal at the end of the half, to make it 27-14. Not great, but also a much closer game than anyone anticipated going in.

Syracuse got the ball to start the third, but neither team could really get enough going on offense until Syracuse ran to the line to catch Clemson off-guard for an 83-yard Nykeim Johnson touchdown via a pass from Nykeim Johnson. At 27-21, the Orange were very much in the game and had opportunities to take the lead. But a Culpepper fumble was returned for a score to make it 34-21, SU punted and then Rex threw two picks (adding to another one earlier in the game) to wrap things up.

At one point, it looked like the Orange were going to grab another TD, but right after Nykeim Johnson picked up 61 yards on a double reverse, Culpepper was picked off in the end zone on a misfire to Luke Benson. Clemson added another touchdown to get us to the final score of 47-21.

As mentioned, Syracuse pressed in the second and third quarter, but ultimately couldn’t make an upset happen as mistakes and injuries took their tool. Culpepper’s four turnovers were a back breaker — especially against the top-ranked team in the country — and losing Sean Tucker to a pretty serious injury also derailed what was a fairly effective Orange rushing by the second half of the game.

Culpepper finished 10-for-26 for 175 yards, 1 TD and 3 INTs (plus the lost fumble). Tucker had 10 run for 63 yards and a score, while Nykeim Johnson had 59 rushing yards on two carries. Makenzy Pierre had six rushes for 16 yards in garbage time. Cooper Lutz ran 10 times for 15 yards.

Without Taj Harris, who was suspended for flipping off the camera vs. Liberty, Anthony Queeley led the way for the Orange receiving corps. He had five catches for 58 yards, while Ed Hendrix finally arrived within this offense — grabbing three balls for 24 yards. Nykeim’s lone catch was the aforementioned 83-yarder. Sharod Johnson also caught one for 10 yards.

Defensively, SU’s actually held their own as much as they could. Garrett Williams had eight tackles, with two pass break-ups and an INT, plus one tackle for loss. Mikel Jones had seven stops and a forced fumble. Ifeatu Melifonwu had six tackles and two pass break-ups. McKinley Williams had two TFLs (one sack), and Tyrell Richards also had a tackle for loss.

While SU allowed plenty of yards — 455 on the game — fewer than 150 of those were in the second half, and the Orange did manage to get some real pressure on both Lawrence and the Clemson receivers who were blanketed repeatedly when running routes past the line of scrimmage. Admittedly, ‘Cuse might have had a tougher time had Etienne been healthy the whole game. But they managed to keep his back-ups in check a bit.

So not ideal, but still better than we thought. JaCobian Morgan also got some burn toward the end of the game. Hopefully we see more of him going forward for Syracuse. I think this group always manages to acquit themselves vs. Clemson, for some reason. And if they can keep some of that going, you have to have some optimism about the rest of the season (even if it’s unlikely to equal more of a game or two).

More recaps to come.