Hope can also be taken away quickly. Syracuse’s hope was extinguished after Rex Culpepper fumbled the ball in the backfield which led to an Andrew Booth Jr. scoop and score.
Clemson rode the momentum of that defensive score to another 13 unanswered points after that, as the Tigers pulled away to a 47-21 victory. Syracuse lost its third straight game of the season and its third game this season to a ranked opponent. Four turnovers by the Orange helped Clemson stave off the Syracuse comeback attempt.
“You can’t make mistakes if you’re gonna have turnovers which we had in the second half,” said Dino Babers. “If you don’t match those turnovers on the other side of the defense, which we were doing early, it’s hard to stay with a team like this.”
The Syracuse team that played against Clemson looked eerily similar to the squad featured in the first two games of the season. The Orange looked strong through the first three quarters and could have taken the lead against the Tigers before the Culpepper fumble. However, instead of the Orange defense tiring out late in the game, it was the Syracuse offensive turnovers that ultimately led to the downfall of the Orange.
The wheels on the bus of Syracuse’s upset bid seemed to pop off after Sean Tucker went down due to an injury to what appeared to be his ankle or leg. Before his exit from the game, Tucker was averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Cooper Lutz came in to replace Tucker in the backfield and couldn’t provide the same rushing spark, which meant Culpepper had to toss the ball more often.
Unfortunately for the Orange, Culpepper’s accuracy issues flared up again as he only completed 10 of his 26 passing attempts. The three interceptions thrown by Culpepper and his fumble not only gave Clemson great field position or points, it gave the Tigers and their fans much-needed momentum and vigor that seemed to escape in the second and third quarter.
The reason for the seemingly lackluster energy among the fans in Death Valley during the middle of the game was due to the Syracuse defense, which needed a bounce-back performance after below-average games against Duke and Liberty. The run defense looked remarkably better, with Clemson only gaining 147 yards of rushing offense.
Garrett Williams in particular had a breakout game. The redshirt-freshman had been solid throughout the season manning the opposite cornerback spot to Ifeatu Melifonwu. Against Clemson, the majority of Trevor Lawrence’s passes went the way of Williams and he stepped up to the occasion, playing tight coverage and forcing balls away from star wide receiver Amari Rodgers.
The highlight of the game came when Lawrence missed an open Rodgers in the middle of the Syracuse’s zone coverage as the wide receiver leaned back to the sideline and tipped the ball. Williams was positioned correctly to secure the tip for his first collegiate interception. He then knifed his way through the Tigers and found the endzone to record the first pick-six thrown by Lawrence in his collegiate career.
“We may have a new punt returner, kickoff returner,” said Babers.
That play was a part of many defensive stops that allowed Syracuse to gain momentum in the middle of the game. While the Orange were aided by a small injury to Travis Etienne that forced the star running back to miss a chunk of action, the defense stayed collected and forced punts and field goals that stalled any momentum that Lawrence tried to generate.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, the Tigers found a solution to break the Orange defense as Clemson turned to screen passes in order to force the Orange to break blocks and tackle, which Syracuse has struggled to do effectively. Almost every screen pass resulted in a block that gave receivers room or an open field tackle that required multiple Syracuse defenders to complete.
Despite the struggles against the screen, the Syracuse defense did well to redeem themselves after their games against Duke and Liberty. Perhaps there was some extra motivation to prove that the Orange shouldn’t be defined by their performances in the previous matches.
“After the Liberty game, we knew we messed up,” said Williams. “We knew that wasn’t who we were as a team, even though that’s what people started to write us off as. Today showed that we’re capable of doing really good things when we’re all focused, locked in, and doing what we’re supposed to do.”
On the offensive side, Culpepper is starting to develop relationships with his receivers, and Anthony Queeley is becoming his favorite target. Queeley was targeted nine times and caught five balls for 58 yards as he was the primary focus in the passing game with the absence of Taj Harris.
Nykeim Johnson also continued to prove his explosiveness with two big plays: a streak down the right sideline for an 83-yard touchdown and a reverse that went for 61 yards and nearly another. While Syracuse was correctly not hunting for the big play frequently, they still showed that they can still surprise opponents for big yards.
Consistency is a weird thing with the 2020 Syracuse football team. One week they look dreadful against a program in its third-ever FBS season and the next week they hang in against the No. 1 team in the country. Babers always preaches for his football roster to be “consistently good.” Now, after a game which may have resurrected some hope among the Syracuse fanbase, his players need to prove that they weren’t showing an “occasionally great” performance against Clemson.