Syracuse Falls Down the Stretch, Can’t Finish off No. 3 Clemson
By Matt Liberman
Citrus TV Sports Web Editor
Clemson, S.C. – As Syracuse trudged towards the team bus not a word was said. Over the span of about twenty minutes, the Orange filed out of the visitor’s locker room, never more than three at a time. Heads drooped low, headphones stayed in and mouths remained shut. The only sounds that could be heard were the dragging of feet and a few sniffles as players fought back tears from a heartbreaking defeat.
“It’s kind of a sick feeling in my stomach right now,” quarterback Eric Dungey said. “We really really wanted this one.”
Syracuse (4-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast) led for close to the entirety of Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 Clemson (5-0, 2-0) in Death Valley (South Carolina) – 51:56 of a total 60 minutes – but the Orange ultimately couldn’t hold off the Tigers in the final minute, falling 27-23. Syracuse had not started a season 5-0 since 1987, when SU went undefeated and tied Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. That drought will continue after Saturday.
“We can’t be satisfied with coming close,” SU head coach Dino Babers said. “It’s a loss in the loss column. We have to regroup.”
The Orange demonstrated early on that this team looked much more like the team that beat Clemson in 2017, not the one that lost every game after. SU drove down the field on its first possession and kicked a field goal, netting an early three-point advantage, and three more points than the Orange scored in Death Valley back in 2016.
And despite a raucous crowd erupting after Trevor Lawrence completed his first pass as a starter, Lawrence fumbled the handoff on the next play, resulting in a Clemson turnover that SU would capitalize on. Within minutes Syracuse led 6-0.
Lawrence answered back, easily leading a charging Tigers roster down the field, where they took a 7-6 advantage, the first team to do so against Syracuse this season. But where SU teams of old may have folded, the Orange battled, re-taking the lead on a Dungey rushing touchdown following a 51-yard reception from Taj Harris to put the Orange in the red zone.
Moments later, the Orange found itself in familiar territory. On the proceeding Clemson drive, Trevor Lawrence scrambled outside the pocket to avoid a sack. As he tip-toed up the sidelines trying to avoid stepping out of bounds, he was tripped up by Josh Black and fell forward, meeting a diving Evan Foster head on. Lawrence was immediately sent to the medical tent before he would eventually be called out for the remainder of the contest.
As Lawrence lay on the ground, 80,122 Clemson hopefuls packed into Memorial Stadium fell silent. Death Valley had no life. The only movement came from the Syracuse sidelines, as players were invigorated, remembering the situation from one year ago.
Last season in the Carrier Dome, defensive tackle Chris Slayton knocked then-Clemson starter Kelly Bryant out with a concussion in the first half, leaving the Tigers to rely on backup Zerrick Cooper.
On Saturday, in relief of Lawrence came Chase Brice, a four-star pocket passer who looked skiddish in his first few minutes of action. SU took advantage, chasing Brice all over the field. At halftime, SU led 16-7 and positioned itself well to upset Clemson for the second-straight year.
But while Clemson tried to force the passing game in the first half, it all but abandoned it in the second half, relying on its three-man rotation of running backs headed by Travis Etienne. The new approach proved effective as Syracuse struggled to wrap at the point of attack and Etienne and company shed tackles with ease.
When Clemson chose to throw in the third quarter, Brice struggled, but was bailed out on occasion. On third down and eight on the Clemson 43-yard line, Brice aired out a pass for wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. The pass was widely off-target, but Renfrow adjusted his positioning mid-air, contorting his body nearly sideways to haul in the catch and preserve a drive that would end in three points for the Tigers.
“I think I’ve seen him do it (make big catches) in championship games before,” Babers said. “It was a fantastic catch. I’m not sure I saw something like that before.”
Inch by inch, Clemson gnawed its way back into the game. Despite Syracuse scoring a touchdown in the second half to extend the lead to 23-13, Clemson kept gaining ground on the back of Etienne.
With just over 11 minutes left in the game, and Clemson on the move, Syracuse managed to halt the Tigers on first down. But on the next play, Etienne broke through a hole in between the right guard and center, to move into open space. SU linebacker Ryan Guthrie attempted to tackle Etienne around his ankle, but missed, as did safety Andre Cisco. Etienne waltzed into the end zone for an easy score, one of his three on the day.
Minutes later, despite the Tigers’ momentum, SU nearly put the game away. In Clemson territory, Babers decided to go for it on fourth down and one. As the play began and the Clemson front seven closed in, tight end Aaron Hackett escaped from the line of scrimmage and found himself wide open downfield where Dungey connected a 19-yard jump lob for the first down. But SU was penalized for an illegible man downfield and was forced to punt on fourth and six.
“It just came down to executing,” Dungey said, “a player here and there. It’s a game of inches. It just came down to execution.”
When it looked like SU finally caught a break, as Clemson false started on fourth and one in its own territory, Brice completed a 20-yard, perfect throw under heavy pressure for the first down, his longest throw of the day. Clemson than ran the ball five more times against a “gassed” defense, Babers said, capping it off with an Etienne touchdown to effectively seal the game with 41 seconds left, shocking SU.
“You can’t play the game thinking you’re going to win in the moment,” defensive lineman Kendall Coleman said. “You’ve gotta go out and play every play like you don’t know what’s going to happen and fight for it. There were too many ups and downs through the entire game with us maybe having that feeling.”
SU had one more opportunity, but when Xavier Thomas leveled Dungey for Clemson’s first sack of the game, the life that SU once possessed in Death Valley was suddenly gone. Clemson’s final five-and-a-half minute drive sucked the life out of the Orange. Thomas’ hit finished them off.
As SU players walked off the field towards the bus, they said they thought they should have won. For nearly 55 minutes, the 25.5-point underdog outplayed the No. 3 team in the country in one of the toughest road environments in college football. But a team that has won as many games in the past three seasons as Clemson won last year – 12 – isn’t taking any moral victories.
“The mood is we’ve got one loss in the loss column and we need to get back in the win column because if we want to be winners, we can’t stay on this track,” Babers said. “2016. 2017. We want 2018 to be different. Then we need to act differently.
“If we deserved to win,” Babers said, “we’d have won it. We didn’t.”