As much as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney would love to have a complete team right now, the fact of the matter is that the Tigers’ offense is still coming along. Whether errors, injuries or missed assignments, the group continues to make strides in working towards where it wants to be.
There were some points worth highlighting offensively, but still work to be done to maximize the potential and talent of the unit. In the meantime, the Tigers’ defense has carried the load and come up crucial late, helping the team to a 4-2 record midway through the season.
As has been the case all year, Clemson battled until the end on Friday night, this time pocketing a 17-13 win over Syracuse in regulation after Orange kicker Andre Szmyt’s field goal attempt went wide left.
“We’ve had four one-possession games in a row,” Swinney said. “I don’t know when the last time we’ve had four one-possession games in a row, and we’re 3-1 in those games, so the positive is we’re finding a way to win, but really making it hard on ourselves with so many things that we control.”
It’s the first time since 2008 that Clemson has had such a stretch. That year, two of those one-possession games came under Tommy Bowden, while the other two were Swinney’s first contests as the interim head coach. Only one resulted in a win.
Here are a few takeaways from the three-point victory:
Depending on the defense
A big reason for Clemson being able to pull out narrow victories has been the experienced defense, which has only given up, after Friday night, two rushing touchdowns and 12.5 points per game on the year.
“Defense is the strength of our team right now until our offense grows up a little bit and starts playing a little cleaner,” Swinney said. “We did a lot of good things, but you’ve got to find a way to win. That’s all we’ve resigned to. … At the end of the day, four one-possession games in a row, we lost one on double-overtime. We found a way to win the other three, so if that’s who we are, that’s who we are, but hopefully, we can continue to see if we can get a little better.”
While there were some first-half mistakes, the Tigers managed to keep running back Sean Tucker, who had a game-best 157 rushing yards, out of the end zone. Tucker’s biggest play of the night came on a 54-yard run in the first quarter. The defense responded with safety Tyler Venables’ interception, which the Tigers’ offense used to score the first points of the night. Venables also had one of Clemson’s two quarterback sacks and ended the night with four tackles. Linebacker Baylon Spector led with 10 tackles in the contest.
Clemson’s defensive unit gave up a rushing and passing touchdown to Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader, but held him to an average of 0.9 yards per carry and less than 50% passing completion.
“They hurt us in the first half, for sure,” Swinney said. “We’re supposed to box one on the early ones and we didn’t have a box player and then we didn’t fit it right one time with our backer. … We made some corrections and did a much better job in the second half outside of the critical penalties, the third-and-15, the fourth-and-7 and the big play. That’s really what kept them in the game the second half.”
D.J.’s best game
Swinney thought Friday night was quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei’s best game of the season. There were 13 total drops by receivers, but Uiagalelei still managed to record 181 passing yards and a touchdown for a 62% completion rate and no interceptions for a second straight game.
“That’s two games in a row with no turnovers, which is big. It gives you an opportunity to win,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “Obviously, numbers are not necessarily where you want them to be, but at the end of the day, he’s managing the game the way we’re asking him to do. He got better at giving guys the opportunity to make catches.”
Of Uiagalelei’s 21 passes, six were for 10 yards or more, which included a 19-yard touchdown strike to Joseph Ngata and a 15-yard pass up the middle to Justyn Ross that set up Kobe Pace’s two-yard score.
“He put some huge plays together,” Swinney said of the sophomore signal caller. “Some missed opportunities, some very accurate throws. I can think of two that missed. He kind of came up short on an RPO hitch and then he had one shot ball that he overthew, but other than that, he put the ball on the money. We just didn’t make enough plays for him that were there.”
Uiagalelei’s best target on the night was Davis Allen, who had a career-high eight receptions on nine targets for a team-leading 49 yards. It was also the most by a Clemson tight end since Brandon Ford’s nine receptions against LSU in 2012.
“He’s a big part of our offense,” Uiagalelei said of Allen. “He does a lot in the pass game, running routes. He does a lot in the run game. I feel like Davis Allen, he’s one of those guys who’ll play 10 years in the NFL.”
In each of Clemson’s losses, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney attributed it to a critical play. Against Georgia, it was a pick-six. The Tigers then had a pass fall incomplete in the end zone during the second overtime against NC State.
While it didn’t cost them the game, critical errors in big moments were drive killers as the Tigers escaped overtime and a potential loss thanks to a missed field goal kick from the Orange.
Penalties added up, with seven costing the squad 60 yards. A missed tackle from Jalyn Phillips led to Syracuse scoring on a 62-yard pass from Shrader to Trebor Pena midway through the fourth quarter. Cornerback Mario Goodrich also tried, but couldn’t get to Pena before he reached the end zone.
Additionally, Ross had five drops in 10 targets. One came during the Tigers’ first drive of the game, though he came off the field right after limping. He returned on the next series.
“Just missed plays, critical penalties,” Swinney added. “We come right out in the second half, have a huge drive going. We snap the ball 20 yards over the field, and then we overcome it and drop the ball. Just a lot of critical mistakes, but you’ve got to give these guys credit. They battled. Our kids battled and believed. We’re just not a clean football team right now.”
Prior to the game, safety Joseph Charleston (hamstring), cornerback Fred Davis (ankle), tight end Braden Galloway (concussion), wide receiver E.J. Williams, who was dealing with a thumb injury earlier in the year, and offensive lineman Hunter Rayburn were all announced as out for the game.
Rayburn, who started at center against Boston College two weeks ago, was out due to COVID-19 protocol, which Swinney said was the first case since fall camp.
Cornerback Andrew Booth was a gametime add to the unavailable list with the junior experiencing tightness in his hamstring. Sheridan Jones filled in for Booth as the starter alongside Goodrich. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables also was pleased with how freshman Nate Wiggins stepped up and contributed.
“Really proud of that group,” Venables said of the cornerbacks. “They’re thin in their numbers, but they’ve been showing up. We’ve been on Nate hard to continue to mature and grow up. … He’s getting better by the day.”