You thought it was over, didn’t you? For just a moment, after Dalvin Cook ran that 75-yard touchdown in, after Shaq Lawson ran off the field clutching his shoulder, after Clemson failed to convert on 4th-and-2, and Lord knows, after that botched fake punt, you got that old familiar feeling in the pit of your stomach, right? Something inside you, no matter how complete your devotion to the Tigers, knew you’d seen this before. Clemson, after spending all season saying that the word “Clemsoning” no longer applied, was about to throw up all over themselves, and maybe you were, too.
But then something happened that hasn’t really occurred since the goal-line stand against Notre Dame earlier this year: Clemson refused to lose. They went into the locker room trailing at the half for the first time this year and made adjustments. They didn’t panic. The defense figured out how to stop Cook; they harassed Seminole QB Sean Maguire and forced him to make poor, rushed decisions; DeShaun Watson overcame his first-half bout of overthrowing receivers and became laser-accurate (297 yards passing); Wayne Gallman ran as if getting tackled was impossible; and Shaq Lawson, injured shoulder and all, helped Ben Boulware stop Dalvin Cook cold on a failed, game-changing 4th-and-1 conversion.
In short, they looked their past in the eye and told it to fuck off. The second half of that game was, quite simply, some of the best football the Tigers have ever played.
Now, it’s simply a question of finishing the job. Up next on the schedule is the Tigers’ final away-game of the season, and quite frankly, other than the slaughter of Miami at Not the Orange Bowl, Clemson has looked considerably shakier on the road than at home. On the surface, they would seem to easily have Syracuse outmatched on more or less every level, but that’s on paper.
DeShaun Watson is clearly superior in a head-to-head matchup with Syracuse’s QB Eric Dungey, so that’s probably not an area of vulnerability. Watson’s got almost 1,000 more passing yards than Dungey, and his completion percentage is a full 10 points higher. Having said that, they’re both mobile. Dungey is the second-leading rusher on the team, with an impressive 352 yards. The Orange also has a bit more depth on the ground than Clemson, with Jordan Fredericks and George Morris II both in triple-digits alongside Dungey. The receiving corps match up pretty evenly, as well, so both teams can take it to the air if need be.
The real disparity in talent-level is located on the defensive side. Clemson is No. 5 in the nation in total defense; Syracuse isn’t in the top 50. Clemson is currently No. 1 in the country in preventing third-down conversions, No. 1 in first-down defense, No. 9 in defensive scoring, and No. 7 in tackles for loss. Syracuse is pretty good at scoring on their opponents when they’ve been able to create turnovers, but that’s about it.
Look, we all know how this game is supposed to go; we all know how it should go. And I’m sure we all remember getting smacked in the mouth at Carter-Finley by NC State. Sometimes the easiest path turns out to be the most difficult to traverse, so let’s not underestimate anyone, especially outside of the cozy confines of Death Valley.