The Clemson Tigers improved to 3-2 on the season with a key 31-14 win at Syracuse. The Tigers outgained the Orange 389 to 286 and forced a trio of turnovers to hand Syracuse its first loss of 2023. The defense was locked in from the start and Clemson jumped out a lead that they never relinquished. What were the key plays that shaped the victory for the Tigers?
Justin Mascoll Forces Fumble on Opening Drive
Turnovers in critical moments have been crippling for the Clemson Tigers offense thus far in 2023. On Saturday in the JMA Wireless Dome, the Tigers flipped the script. Syracuse had just converted a third and short and on first down and Garrett Shrader broke free for a 19-yard run across midfield. At the Clemson 45-yard line, Justin Mascoll leveled Shrader and knocked the ball free. Payton Page recovered the fumble but a flag was thrown and the officials called Mascoll for targeting. Thankfully, the call was overturned after review and the Tigers took possession. That was the longest run of the day for Shrader and Clemson’s defense sent a message, backing up Dabo Swinney’s words about this being an “angry football team”.
Converting in the Red Zone
Another key element thus far in 2023 has been the inefficiency in the red zone from Clemson’s offense. While that problem reared its ugly head at times against Syracuse, the Tigers had an answer on their first drive. On third and seven from the Syracuse 14-yard line, Cade Klubnik escaped pressure and threw a laser to Troy Stellato for the opening score. It was an impressive throw on the run from Klubnik and capped a seven-play, 55-yard drive.
More Havoc From the Defense
After the teams traded punts, Syracuse took over at the 23-yard line. Garrett Shrader continued to get harassed by the Clemson front and his pitch to LeQuint Allen was a poor one, resulting in a fumble that was scooped up by Xavier Thomas. XT returned the ball to the Syracuse three-yard line and on second and goal, Will Shipley punched it in to make the score 14-0.
Syracuse Fights Back
The Syracuse Orange offense was able to find a bit of rhythm and put together the best drive they’d have all afternoon. Shrader connected with tight end Dan Villari for a couple of nice gains and then scored on a 28-yard pass play to Villari. The drive took eight plays and covered 75 yards for the Orange and the scoring play was a disappointing lack of tackling by the Clemson defense, but it was not an omen of things to come.
Tigers Get Breathing Room
After a turnover on downs by Clemson and a long missed field goal by Syracuse, the Clemson Tigers took possession at the 39-yard line and struck quickly. Cade Klubnik converted a third and ten with a nice scramble and on the next play, Beaux Collins roasted his defender with a double move and Cade Klubnik lofted the ball for a walk-in touchdown for Collins. Klubnik saw the lack of a safety over the top and knew Collins had beaten his defender making this an easy score for the offense. It was a rare easy scoring drive for Clemson and they led 21-7 with 2:23 remaining in the half.
Clemson’s defense forced a quick three and out the Tigers actually had a chance to extend the lead but Jonathan Weitz pushed a 42-yard field goal just wide to end the half.
Bad Red Zone Play Continues but Weitz Hits FG
To begin the second half, the Tigers offense continued to take vertical shots and the Syracuse secondary continued to struggle covering without being called for pass interference. Cade Klubnik then connected on a beautifully thrown long pass to Tyler Brown to set the Tigers up inside the ten. The positives ended there. Klubnik lost five on first down, Shipley went backwards on second down and Klubnik faced pressure and just dove back to the line of scrimmage on third down. In what should be a confidence boost, Jonathan Weitz was able to make the resulting 38-yard field goal to make it a three-score game.
Turnover Gives Syracuse Life
With Clemson ahead 24-7 and driving for a potential knockout punch, Jake Briningstool caught a short pass and was blindsided by a hit that jarred the ball loose. Syracuse recovered on the sideline and had the ball with great field position. Starting at the Clemson 42-yard line, the Orange drove into scoring territory and Garrett Shrader finally threw an accurate pass. LeQuint Allen caught the six-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-14 with just 12:23 remaining in the contest.
Tigers Slam the Door Shut
The Clemson offense ran some time off the clock thanks to a few impressive plays from Tyler Brown (a star in the making) but had to punt the ball back to Syracuse. The Orange started at the eight-yard line with 7:31 remaining. After getting one first down, Jeremiah Trotter Jr. perfectly read Shrader’s intentions and dove for an interception. That was the third forced turnover by the defense. On the very first play of the Clemson drive, Phil Mafah found a hole and ran from 32 yards out for a touchdown that effectively ended this game.
Clemson made a few mistakes but the defense was stellar and the offense did enough to comfortably earn the victory on the road. The Tigers are now 3-2 and will look to gain momentum with a home date against Wake Forest on October 7. If they can continue to “play angry”, they should be 4-2 going into the bye week.