DJ BENCHED AND NO.5 CLEMSON OVERCOMES 4 TURNOVERS TO BEAT NO.14 SYRACUSE 27-21 FOR RECORD-BREAKING 38TH STRAIGHT WIN IN DEATH VALLEY
- 2022-10-23 16:06:17
CLEMSON, SC - WHEW! What a game. I'm beginning to think that Dino Babers is practicing voodoo or something because this is the 3rd time in the last 6 meetings that Cuse has chased the Tigers' starting quarterback out of the game! In 2017, starting QB Kelly Bryant was injured and so was starting kicker Greg Huegel. The Tigers' backup kicker Alex Spence missed 2 easy field goals, and they lost by 3 points in the Carrier Dome. The following year, Trevor Lawrence leaves the game in the first half with a concussion, and the Tigers have to mount a comeback with Chase Brice, who was the 3rd string QB at the beginning of the season. For the second straight year, Kelly Bryant missed the Cuse game because he had announced his decision to transfer. Last season, Will Shipley was injured and missed the game at Syracuse. The Tigers won another close game. On top of all that, Dino and Syracuse got to play NC State last week right after Preseason ACC Player of the Year Devin Leary was knocked out for the season! It's either witchcraft or tremendous luck!
This time, it wasn't injury but a bizarre series of terrible plays by DJ (as if he had a hex on him) that chased the Tigers' quarterback from the game. After playing nearly flawlessly for the first 7 games of the season and riding a 13-game win streak, DJ was suddenly playing like he did early last year, including giving Syracuse points like he did 3 times last season. He threw pick-sixes against UGA and Pitt last season, and the Tigers lost both games. He also had a sack-fumble returned for a touchdown against FSU last season, and it nearly cost them the game. This time, he fumbled on the Syracuse 7-yard line, and it was returned 90 yards for a stunning 14-point swing. The Death Valley crowd, which was raucous and ready for the Tigers to take the lead, was shell-shocked. And that was after DJ had already thrown his 3rd interception of the season in which he completely stared down the receiver and telegraphed the pass to the DB, who read it all the way. The Tigers marched right down the field for a TD in their opening possession, as they have so many times this season. For whatever reason, the offense looks great on the opening possession or two and then stagnates for a couple quarters. DJ's first two turnovers cost the Tigers at least 17 and maybe 21 points! And the Tigers were one of just 3 teams that were perfect in the red zone this season, scoring on all 35 trips, which was the most of the three teams. The other teams were Tennessee and Ohio State, which are widely regarded as the two best offenses in the country. After the scoop-and-score, my phone was blowing up with people pleading for DJ's removal, but I said that it was too early and you don't pull a guy who's played as well as DJ has because of a couple mistakes. He deserved and earned the opportunity to bounce back. However, after his 2nd INT and 3rd turnover of the game, I immediately said Dabo should pull bench DJ, and that's exactly what he did. DJ sailed his pass well over the head of a wide-open Jake Briningstool down the seam. What should have been a huge completion was yet another turnover. DJ was clearly rattled at that point, and it would only do more harm than good to leave him in. He also bobbled a snap earlier, which resulted in a sack, and he didn't identify a wide-open Antonio Williams for a potential touchdown but rather threw it away. It was as if he hopped in a time machine and suddenly reverted to the 2021 DJ. Maybe it was the pink sleeve. I've always been apprehensive about the pink glove games for over a decade now. The FSU blowout in 2013 and the NC State game the Tigers should have lost in 2016 were both pink glove games, and they've played terrible in other ones as well. In this one, on top of DJ's poor play, there were drops by receivers, and the normally sure-handed Will Shipley also fumbled! He had just ripped off a 21-yard run on the first play of the possession, and the Tigers would have had the ball at the Syracuse 33-yard line with a chance to cut into the 21-10 lead in the 3rd quarter. The Tigers were now minus 4 in the turnover margin, and teams this season were 0-17 in that situation! As I wrote in my preview, the Tigers did not commit a single turnover in their 3 toughest games this season: Wake, NC State and FSU. Well, they did the exact opposite in the most important game so far this season. Lose this game, and the Tigers are no longer in control of their own destiny, needing Syracuse to lose twice!
Enter freshman QB Cade Klubnik with 4:53 left in the 3rd quarter to a huge ovation from the crowd. It's almost as if the quarterback change gave the entire team a fresh slate or do-over, and I got the same sensation from the crowd. The Tigers would go on to outscore Cuse 17-0 in the 2nd half. After a 9-yard run by Shipley, Cade unleashed his first pass of the game, an 18-yard strike to Ngata. That seemed to get Cade settled into the game right off the bat. Cade didn't exactly blow up the stat sheet, but he did the most important thing, which is protect the football! He ran the offense fairly smoothly and didn't commit a turnover. He had the 18-yard completion to Ngata and a couple nice runs on his first possession, which led to a Mafah touchdown. Cade's biggest play was probably a scramble drill on a 2-point conversion that was backed up due to a delay of game penalty. He found Ngata in the back of the end zone and made a nice throw after eluding a tackler. Cade was only 2-4 passing for 19 yards, and he ran 6 times for 15 yards. There were a few plays in which he looked like a freshman, indecisive and unable to find a receiver with plenty of time in the pocket. He and the Tigers also got lucky with Syracuse bailing them out on a couple big penalties. One was a late hit out of bounds on Cade when the Tigers would have punted on 4th and forever, and another was a pass interference (the refs finally called one) on a deep pass to the end zone to Collins on 3rd and forever. Incidentally, Collins didn't have a single catch for the 2nd straight game! Give Cade credit for putting that 50-yard throw in a spot where Collins could make a play on it and draw the PI, but he took a couple sacks, got behind the chains and needed help from penalties to keep a couple drives alive. He did a good job in a pressure-packed situation, but in my opinion, he is not ready to be the starter. That's what I told people who were texting me late in the game. I guaranteed them that DJ would still be the starter at Notre Dame, and that's exactly what Dabo made unequivocally clear after the game. With Cade steering the ship in the 4th quarter, the comeback was primarily due to Shipley, Mafah and the defense.
As the 4th quarter began, the Tigers had 2nd and goal at the Syracuse 3-yard line on Cade's first possession after replacing DJ. Cade and Mafah were both stoned in the middle for no gain. On 4th and goal from the 2, rather than take the easy field goal and make it a one-score game, Dabo put his faith in Mafah, who plowed into the end zone between the tackles. Dabo decide to go for 2, which I disagreed with. He told me after the game that he based his decision strictly on what the charts said, but I think the charts were wrong. First of all, the charts don't know you have a freshman QB in the game. Second, it was way too early to go for 2 when you're only down 5. The Tigers would have 3 or 4 more possessions with 14 minutes left on the clock, and who knows what's going to happen in that time. If you take the PAT, you're down 4 but then you're up 3 when you score another TD. If you miss the 2-point conversion, you're only up 2 after the next TD, and a field goal beats you. It just wasn't worth the risk with that much time left, and sure enough, the Tigers' 2-point conversion attempt failed. That forced them to chase the point with another 2-point conversion attempt on the following TD, which they were lucky to get. They could have just kicked two PAT's with the same result.
Sophomore Phil Mafah has really emerged over the last few games with Kobe Pace out. He's made several key plays on 3rd and 4th down in recent weeks and rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against Syracuse. After his 4th and 2 TD run cut the lead to 21-16, the Death Valley crowd was back in it, and the defense forced a three-and-out. Shrader completed a 19-yard pass to his favorite target, Gadsden, on 3rd down, but the refs finally called a holding penalty. The Tigers' opponents have been getting away with holds all season, but they finally got a call at a critical moment. Cade ran 11 yards on 1st down, and then Shipley busted a 50-yard touchdown run on the next play, sending the Death Valley crowd into a frenzy! Shipley has been caught from behind on every long run he's had this season, but this time, he would not be denied. It looked like he might be tripped up from behind, but he kept his balance and "willed" himself into the end zone. Shipley scored 2 TD's with 242 all-purpose yards, 4 more than he had last week at FSU, earning him ACC RB of the Week honors. As mentioned, Ngata converted on the 2-point conversion despite the delay of game penalty, and that gave the Tigers a 3-point lead, their first lead since it was 7-0. The difference between the energy in the stadium after DJ's 3rd turnover and after Shipley's touchdown was as much a contrast as you can imagine. Since Cade came into the game, the Tigers had 2 possessions and scored 2 touchdowns. And as you would expect from DJ, he was nothing but supportive of Cade and the consummate teammate on the sideline, doing everything he could to help Cade. He told Dabo on the sideline, "All I care about is winning."
The quarterback situation naturally grabbed all of the headlines, but lost in it all was the incredible performance of the Tigers' defense. Stud linebacker Barrett Carter was out due to concussion protocol, but the Tigers still held the Cuse offense to just 14 points! Cuse scored on one turnover, but on the other 3, the Tigers' defense did not allow a score. They sacked Shrader 5 times, which is quite a feat for a big, athletic QB like him. Tyler Davis had 2 sacks while KJ, Bresee, Murphy and Simpson combined for the rest. The one negative was that they didn't create a turnover...until Syracuse was knocking on the door for the win! With a 1st down at the Clemson 30 and less than 30 seconds left, safety RJ Mickens dropped into coverage on Gadsden and intercepted Shrader's pass with 15 seconds left to save the game. Mukuba dropped a pick earlier in the 4th quarter, which probably would have been a pick-six, so I'm sure Dabo's heart was in his throat as he saw Mickens get his hands on the ball. The Tigers have dropped several INT's and pick-sixes that hit them in the hands this season, but Mickens held on and prevented a pass into the end zone, sealing the win for the Tigers! By the way, how about ole reliable BT Potter? He just went out there and did what he does, going 2-2 with a pair of 44-yard field goals, and they were the difference in the final score! He is now 15-17 on the season.
The Tigers are now 35-7 in one-score games, and they extended the nation's longest win streak to 14. They also set a new ACC record with their 38th straight home win. No current player on the Clemson roster has ever lost at home. If not for that last-second field goal by Pitt in 2016, the Tigers would have broken Miami's all-time record of 58 straight home wins. Instead, the Tigers are now tied with Knute Rockne's Notre Dame teams for 10th all-time. They will need a few more seasons to break Miami's record.
They bye comes at a perfect time for DJ to flush this game from his memory. I don't know why, but the Tigers always seem to struggle in games before bye weeks. Sometimes it's offensively and sometimes defensively. I know the 2017 loss at Syracuse was right before a bye, and I think last year's close win at Cuse might have been before a bye as well. There have been other close-calls right before byes too. You'd think that they'd be extra motivated to leave it all on the field and finish strong with a week off to rest, but maybe the bye is a distraction. Or maybe it's just coincidence. Whatever it is, the Tigers survived it and are undefeated with a week off to get healthy and mentally right before a road game at Notre Dame starts the championship leg of the season. Ironically, DJ set the all-time Notre Dame Stadium passing record as a freshman, so it's the perfect place for him to bounce back from Saturday's set back. And if he turns one bad game into two, Cade will have 2 weeks to prepare himself for another relief appearance and his first time in front of a big, hostile crowd.
8-0 and 7 to go! Post-game interviews, highlights and notes are below!
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