Friday the 13th lived up to its reputation for No. 2 Clemson.
The Tigers lost their starting quarterback due to a concussion, saw their defense inexplicably get turned around in a track meet, had one of the worst fake punts of the season and never led all night long. More ghastly though, Clemson saw Syracuse secure the biggest victory of the Dino Babers era as the Orange looked like the better side from kickoff to the final whistle in a massive 27-24 upset that will shake up both ACC and College Football Playoff races.
Quarterback Eric Dungey led the way for the home team at the Carrier Dome, throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns despite facing one of the best defensive lines in the country on every snap. He also provided an incredible dimension with his legs in rushing for 61 yards — including the game-sealing first down with just over 90 seconds to go. The fast-paced offense racked up numerous multi-play drives as the marched up and down the field from the opening kickoff and seemed to have an answer just about every time.
The Tigers simply did not come to play on Friday night, looking sluggish from the get go. Not helping matters was the loss of starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, who didn’t look fully healthy while dealing with an ankle injury and then suffered a concussion on a scramble just before halftime. While the run game of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster both scored long touchdowns, there never was much of a rhythm to the offense as they stalled out on several drives.
Were it not for a Tanner Muse 63 yard scoop-and-score fumble return in the first half, things could have been even worse for the defending national champions.
If there is one silver lining for Dabo Swinney’s group it was that they were in a similar spot last season, losing to Pitt at home before eventually rallying to win the league and the national title. Things might be a little tougher this time around, but the path remains the same inside the division (and on the national stage) with games against a ranked N.C. State team and big name in Florida State still to come. Perhaps most crucially, a bye week awaits the team once they return back home and will provide some much needed rest after some significant injuries in the first half of the year.
Syracuse doesn’t really care about all that talk though, for there was nothing freaky on Friday for the Orange as they pulled off one of the memorable upsets of the season so far.
Clemson and Virginia Tech played a fun, back-and-forth ACC title game last season that send both off to big postseason wins. While there were a lot of new faces on the field for their rematch on Saturday night, there wasn’t much of a back-and-forth between the two top 15 teams this time around.
As a result, Clemson looked every bit of a national title contender once again in passing their biggest road test of the young season to beat the Hokies 31-17 in a game that the Tigers controlled throughout.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant started off hot in the passing game before cooling down in just his second road start, eventually throwing for 186 yards and a touchdown. Where he really made an impact though was with his legs, weaving through Bud Foster’s defense to record 109 yards rushing. His budding stars in the backfield, sophomore Tavien Feaster and freshman Travis Etienne, were limited to fewer than 60 yards combined however as things were tough going outside of scrambles.
While the offense’s effort was notable, the story of the night was once again Clemson’s defense. They didn’t let Tech cross midfield until late in the first half and were swarming on nearly every play, recording eight tackles for loss and two sacks. Even when the Hokies looked like the could put points on the board, Brent Venables’ unit stuffed out a fake field goal in the third quarter and pulled down two interceptions (one of the pick-six variety) in the fourth to put an exclamation point on the victory.
Things were not all bad for Virginia Tech despite the rather lopsided final score. Young QB Josh Jackson topped the 250 mark passing (with a touchdown) and used his ability to take off and run to avoid dozens of sacks that seemed like he could have had on every one of his 44 dropbacks. Tailback Travon McMillian did break off a big 29 yard run in the first half but was otherwise kept in check with 30 yards and the nation’s leading receiver, Cam Phillips, was held to just 74 yards. For a very young team that remains in the running to win the division, it wasn’t a night they were hoping for but could be a solid building block against one of the nation’s best despite the loss.
Given Alabama’s dominance in the SEC so far in 2017 and what Clemson has shown so far in early ACC play, one still gets the feeling that no matter what happens with teams over the next few weeks that we’re headed for a rubber-match rematch between the two superpowers and everybody else could just be playing out the string until then.
Clemson may not be ranked No. 1 in the country tomorrow, but they should be. The defending national champions looked very much like a team interested in defending that title, as the No. 3-ranked Tigers smacked reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and No. 14 Louisville, 47-21 before a blacked out Cardinal Stadium crowd in Louisville.
The Tigers (3-0, 1-0 ACC) asserted their dominance from the start, forcing a three-and-out to open the game and then moving 79 yards in 10 crisply executed plays, culminating in an 8-yard Kelly Bryant keeper. Louisville (2-1, 1-1 ACC) tied the game with a 95-yard drive, the only flash of Jackson’s 2016 brilliance. He accounted for all 95 yards on the drive — with the help of a 15-yard late hit flag — with runs of 15 and 30 yards and an 11-yard touchdown pass to Charles Standberry.
Clemson reclaimed the lead for good on a 31-yard Greg Huegel field goal with 6:57 left before the half, then added some distance when Bryant found a wide open Ray Ray McCloud for a 79-yard catch-and-run score. After adding another field goal before the break, Clemson’s defense slam-dunked an exclamation point score when Dorian O’Daniel baited Jackson into an interception, then returned it 44 yards for a touchdown to hand Clemson a 26-7 lead with 8:57 left in the third quarter.
Bryant would add another rushing touchdown to close the third quarter, and would finish the night as the game’s true Heisman contender. Making his first ever road start, Bryant hit 22-of-32 passes for 316 yards with a touchdown and an interception while rushing for another 26 yards and two scores. Clemson would add two more touchdown runs, a 39-yarder by Adam Choice and an 81-yard bust by Travis Etienne. As a team, Clemson rushed 46 times for 291 yards and four touchdowns.
If Bryant is Clemson’s Heisman candidate, it’s only because the Tigers’ defense isn’t eligible. Fresh off posting 11 sacks against Auburn, Clemson sacked Jackson four times, harassing him into a pedestrian (for him) night of 21-of-41 passing for 317 yards with three touchdowns and a pick-six and 17 carries for 64 yards. The Cardinals as a team rushed 25 times for 117 yards.