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Making Sense of Clemson’s Loss to Syracuse

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How did the Tigers lose to the Orange and what does it mean for the season?

Clemson v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Friday was a special night for Syracuse as they earned their best win of the Dino Babers era - and make no mistake, it was earned. A great game plan put the Orange in position to win and despite a huge raw talent deficit their players won individual matchups.

There was a lot that went wrong for the Tigers to open the window for Syracuse. Let’s talk about the most obvious one first - the Kelly Bryant injuries. He came into this game on a short week after rolling his ankle against Wake Forest. The replay of the play in which he got hurt didn’t seem too gruesome and they spoke encouragingly about the injury all week (though that turned out to be coach-speak) so it was unsurprising to see him start.

In previewing the game, we discussed how poorly Syracuse’s pass defense had been all year. Since Bryant didn’t look good passing the ball against Wake Forest (aside from the first two drives), this matchup offered a good opportunity to have Bryant attack a defense through the air. Syracuse’s pass rush had been weak all year (only six total team sacks heading into the game) so starting Bryant, even if we was hobbled, didn’t seem ludicrous.

That’s where Baber’s game plan changed things. Likely anticipating Bryant to be immobilized by injury, they dialed up the blitzes. They stacked the box and didn’t respect him as a runner either. The aggression led to a pair of big runs by Feaster and Etienne, but largely stifled the offense and led to four sacks. Once it was clear that Syracuse was getting to Bryant, Clemson’s coaching staff likely should have adjusted by replacing him with someone more mobile (unfortunately screen passes haven’t worked to counter aggressive defenses because of problems zipping the passes out to WRs and poor WR blocking. That said, with what we saw from Zerrick Cooper, who they believe was their next best option, the reluctance is less surprising.

Just before halftime, Kelly Bryant was sacked. He was thrown to the ground so hard he got a concussion as hit head hit the turf. He went limp and was out cold - a scary sight. To my knowledge, this is his first concussion. Research doesn’t show a strong correlation between known concussions and the brain disease known as CTE, but cumulative hits to the head (including sub-concussive hits) certainly do. I heard some very ignorant comments on twitter (not by Clemson fans, thankfully) about this problem in our beloved sport. If you’d like to learn more, I strongly recommend checking out this episode of Freakonomics. We don’t know how long Bryant will be out, but it looked like a pretty serious concussion. We don’t know much yet, but hopefully he is back to 100% in two weeks!

Following his departure, Zerrick Cooper came into the game. This was a bit of a surprise after how poorly he played against Wake Forest and how well Hunter Johnson played, but they were listed a co-second-stringers on the depth chart. Zerrick looked passable for much of the game, but let the ball sail on him and missed some key opportunities that could have changed the outcome of the game. The offense only scored two touchdowns in the game, both on long runs by the running backs. Pathetic, right Mike Leach?

While all that is bad, the bigger problems came on defense and special teams.

We haven’t seen a Brent Venables defense play like this since the Pittsburgh game last season. There seems to be one clunker by an otherwise dominant defense each year. In 2015 it came against NC State, but that one generally forgotten because the offense overcame it to win 56-41.

Syracuse’s uptempo passing attack was vicious and by the end of the game tired out the defense. That allowed them to pick up yards on the ground to close out the game. I do not believe the defense was tired because they substitute often in other games. That’s an assertion I’ve seen floating around Clemson twitter, but it’s a silly one. Conditioning comes in the hours upon hours of practice, not just the games. Offenses that play with great pace will do that. It was weird to see Clemson get a taste of its own medicine and their opponent tire out our defense. It wasn’t fun.

The bigger problem though was the play of Clemson’s DBs, who have been so impressive this season. They simply lost matchups against ‘Cuse wide receivers. There’s no way around it. QB Eric Dungey passed for 278 yards and three touchdowns. He also broke off a 45-yard run. Excluding Lamar Jackson, Dungey is the best QB Clemson will see during the season.

All that is pretty bad, but Clemson still would have prevailed if it weren’t for special teams. When Huegel tore his ACL, many of us said it would cost us a game. We just didn’t figure it would be this one. Alex Spence made a 30-yard FG, but it was sandwiched between misses from 35 yards and 38 yards. The Tigers have to drive inside the 15-yard line before he can be trusted to make the FG. This is a big problem for this team and has now cost them a game. It may cost them more looking ahead.

So how bad is that outlook moving forward? It’s not all doom and gloom. At least part of this loss can be chalked up to fatigue and a lack of focus. This was the seventh straight game before a badly needed bye week. They’ve been playing all their road games at night, making for late nights and a lack of sleep. Dabo has spoken about how exhausting it has been.

The bye week comes with plenty to correct and now an impetus to refocus. Then it’s three straight big games against quality ACC competition. Clemson still controls their own destiny, but they’ll have to win all their remaining conference games to clinch a spot in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game. Any ACC loss would hand the division to NC State.

Georgia Tech heads to Death Valley on October 28th. They took Miami to the brink on Saturday, losing 24-25, but only have FBS wins against UNC and Pitt. It’s still tough to say how good they are.

A trip to Raleigh to face NC State follows on November 4th. They outscored Pit 21-3 in the second half this week to reach 4-0 in the ACC this week. Clemson has won 12 out of 13 against the Wolfpack, but this NC State defense may be the best they’ve faced in that span. This game will be a bigger challenge than I realized at the start of the season.

Finally, Clemson closes out ACC play with FSU at home. If the Tigers can get and stay healthy (we need a mobile Bryant at QB), I’d give them better than a 50-50 shot at sweeping those three ACC foes and winning the Atlantic.

Where I see more ominous blemishes from this game is looking ahead to potential postseason opponents. Kelly Bryant has only four passing TDs on the season and those are generally explosive plays, not clutch passes in the red zone. If Clemson has to face a stout run-stuffing defense like Alabama, Washington, Georgia, or Wisconsin (NC State is not too far behind that group either), the QB Power with the Jet Sweep window dressing may fail. The extent to which we rely upon Bryant’s mobility is more apparent than ever.

There’s still time to improve! This week, they can rest, heal, and begin to prepare. The single-elimination playoffs begin with Georgia Tech.