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Game 5 Preview: Clemson Looks to Turn the Season Around at Syracuse

The Dreaded “Best 2-2 Team in the Country” Situation

NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you hate being right. I thought FSU would win a close game and that their QB/WR advantage would be the difference. I HOPED that would not be the case, and for the majority of last week’s tilt with FSU, it wasn’t as Cade Klubnik and his supporting cast played pretty darn well. Just like the Duke game, Clemson was taking control of the line of scrimmage and looking like they were ready to build a lead when absolute disaster struck. It really has been incredible how catastrophic the mistakes Clemson has made have been.

  • Missed sack on Leonard at Duke turns into a game changing TD run
  • Fumble deep in Duke territory is returned all the way inside the Clemson 10 and an eventual TD
  • Missed blitz protection by Mafah leads to a sack, fumble, and TD return that changes the game last week
  • Missed FG’s in both losses from relative chip shot ranges for D1 football.

Most metrics have this team well above where it currently sits, but alas the most important metric is the W/L column and the Tigers sit at 2-2 and 0-2 in the ACC on the fringe of total elimination from conference title game asperations. The 2021 team figured it out enough to salvage that season and had an outside shot of the division crown before Wake Forest did what they had to at the end. Tiger fans need to hope this team can do likewise and string some wins together. The silver lining is the depth of the ACC provides some quality wins as it stands now. If Clemson can quit beating Clemson, the team could still vie for the title game considering the head to head matchups that await favorite as well as Duke, Miami, and UNC. Clemson can help itself but it has to start Saturday. One more loss here and things will be extremely bleak in ways not seen since 2010’s dud season. That team never really rebounded from blowing a lead and losing to eventual champion Auburn.

Syracuse has been a serious headache for Dabo Swinney even in the good years. 2014 was a tight win, 2015 was way closer than it should have been, 2017 was a loss up there, 2018 took a huge comeback with the backup QB, 2021 came down to the wire, and last year was like a 2018 deja vu moment. Clemson always seems to get the best of what Syracuse has to offer and now the Orange are once again undefeated heading into this game. Clemson just has one loss to Babers during his time up there, but it certainly feels like there have been more.

They always say the most important game is the one you have that week, but that rings extra true this week with season on the brink before the calendar hits October. I still feel like this team has the makings of a really, really good one and better than any since 2020. It is past time they put it together to prove me right on that feeling.

Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: The Tiger defense really played some great football for 85% of last week’s game. Florida State has an electric offense with a super senior QB and alphas at WR and TE. Clemson had one terrible defensive possession at the end of the first half and otherwise made FSU execute at an extremely high level just to move the ball. The Seminole rushing attack has become one of the best in the league the last couple of years and managed 20 yards. They just couldn’t produce a game changing turnover or stop on downs, and then lost alpha corner Nate Wiggins right before FSU exploited the substitution for the game winning TD.

Now they have a team that is perhaps the most QB-centric offense they will face (save for maybe South Carolina). Garrett Shrader is back for what feels like a 10th season and he has been Mr. Everything for the Orange. Much like Duke, Syracuse relies on its QB to be its top rushing threat AND passer. Clemson will have to rally and tackle much better in this game than it did in Durham and even at times last week. If Syracuse can effectively run the ball, this will be a very problematic game and have high potential for a loss.

The good news for me is Syracuse isn’t nearly as capable of throwing to win with no running game like FSU could. They don’t have Wilson or Coleman on the outside, though they do have some size and talent out there. Stud running back Sean Tucker has moved on to the NFL, thankfully, although his replacement LeQuint Allen is a pretty good player. Barrett Carter played a lot more like the All-American he is billed to be last week vs. FSU and Jeremiah Trotter had his first splash plays of the season as well. Those two and Wade Woodaz are going to be vital in dealing with Syracuse’s style of offense where they want to get Shrader isolated in the run game and hit play action stuff off of that.

Star Orange TE/WR hybrid Orande Gadsden has been out with an ankle injury. His health and availability could be a big factor in this game because if he is good to go he offers Syracuse another playmaker and matchup issue on offense. Ankles are tough for skill guys so I’m thinking he won’t be as effective if he is able to play.

Mukuba was back last week and played well, and he is another vital piece of the defensive puzzle for Clemson. The jury is out on Nate Wiggins’s availability this week, but I would be surprised if he would be ready to go for this game. It is a shame because he has been tremendous all year. I felt bad for Lukus last week who really has improved a lot and was in position and just got burned on a great throw and catch by a dude who will play on Sundays. I have no gripes with Clemson’s corner play and last week’s effort should be plenty to handle Syracuse Saturday.

Xavier Thomas played some inspired football last week and hopefully that version of XT is what we are going to see a lot of going forward. That 3 man rush play where he went through TWO FSU OL to sack Travis was a teach tape on relentlessness and converting speed to power. At some point one of these guys will need to create a big fumble or set up a pick. This week is a great time to see that happen.

Syracuse’s OL is solid but I would rank Duke and FSU ahead of them in that area. Clemson’s DL should be able to win that matchup and make the Orange have to throw it more than they would like. Stop Shrader from running and Clemson should win this game.

Clemson offense vs Syracuse defense: I’m more encouraged about the offense after last week, even though the turnover was a disaster and the late game decisions were extremely disappointing. I thought Cade took a big step forward against a defense with some dudes. I also though the WR corps, minus the top player in Antonio Williams, stepped up and showed they could beat man coverage. The running game was having a hard time but the OL and backs began breaking through as the game went along and the team still ran for 146 yards (which includes the lost yardage on that disastrous sack) against a defense bent to stop it. Garrett Riley showed some nice variety of plays involving the running backs and tight end in the passing game. The last step is the truly explosive play in the passing game that gets behind the defense.

Syracuse has always impressed me with how well coached their defense has been in recent years under former DC Tony White. They are now led by Rocky Long who is still using White’s base 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Clemson needs to line up and bludgeon that front with the run game like they ultimately did last year after benching DJU and leaning heavily on Will Shipley to win the game.

Clemson has shown great improvement with executing slants and inside routes compared to the last two years. That should be helpful against what Syracuse typically likes to do with their coverages. The key for Cade is recognizing the post snap shifts and inevitable late pressures folks will copy cat from what FSU did to create that fumble last week.

Clemson has to take care of the ball above all else. Turnovers and special teams are ALWAYS at the heart of upsets and we have seen that play out in both Clemson losses (though the Tigers were an underdog last week). The Tigers need to work to take what will probably be a pretty rowdy crowd out of the game.

Special Teams: Last week came down to a kick, ultimately, and the Tigers couldn’t deliver with Jonathan Weitz who returned to the program and was thrown into the fire. I won’t get into Clemson apparently playing for the kick because I did think Klubnik was close to popping that draw for the first down but was tripped up. Still, any team at this level has to be able to execute 30 yard field goals lined straight up with ease. Tiger fans will be holding their breath for the foreseeable future on these placekicks until some consistency is shown.

On the bright side, Aidan Swanson had one of the best punting games of his career and really hit the ball well. Tyler Brown was taken off punt return after getting shaken up. With Antonio Williams out last week, Brown’s role as a WR was even more important than usual. Hopefully Williams can return and Brown can be back at punt return to add some explosiveness to that phase.

Overall: The Tigers should believe they are a good team even at 2-2. Syracuse is playing confidently like they were this time last year before losing late to the Tigers and then struggling to recover afterwards. It is full on Alamo time for this year’s team. Making Charlotte shouldn’t mean you are in the Mayo Bowl. I think the Tigers find it this week and play well even though Syracuse will have their moments like they always seem to against the Tigers.

Clemson 35-Syracuse 23