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Clemson is Through its Toughest 2019 Hurdles

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Tigers are already well on their way to yet another College Football Playoff berth.

At the beginning of the season, we circled two games on the Clemson schedule that the Tigers were supposed to be in the most danger of suffering an upset defeat. One of those two contests was Saturday night against the Syracuse Orange.

The last team to beat Clemson during the regular season, Syracuse knocked off the Tigers at the Carrier Dome two years ago. Last season, the Orange nearly did it again at Clemson.

This September, the Clemson-Syracuse matchup was no contest, as the Tigers routed the preseason favorite to finish second in the ACC Atlantic, 41-6.

If the Orange are indeed the second-best team in the ACC -- which they probably aren’t, but there’s too small of a sample to definitely say no -- then there’s a crater between Clemson and the rest of the conference. The Tigers are already well on their way to yet another College Football Playoff berth.

Maybe the most impressive part about Saturday night for Clemson was they didn’t look all that great at times, at least offensively, and still won a road conference matchup by five touchdowns. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw two interceptions and the Tigers only added a field goal to their lead in the second quarter when they had some opportunities to extend the lead to three scores before halftime.

It’s hard to figure out why Lawrence and the Clemson offense don’t quite have the same rhythm it did a year ago because so many pieces are back. But when Lawrence needs it, he can still throw up a couple jump balls for his tall, athletic receivers to go get.

Against the smaller Syracuse cornerbacks, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers had a field day, as both posted more than 120 yards, and Rodgers scored two touchdowns. Lawrence connected with Higgins, Rodgers and Justyn Ross for passes of at least 48 yards to each receiver, helping him post an average of 10.1 yards per attempt. Lawrence completed 22 of 39 for 395 yards and three touchdowns as well.

The night, though, belonged to the Clemson defense. The Tigers held Syracuse to a dismal 2.6 yards per play while Clemson averaged 8.6.

With those numbers, it’s no wonder this game was a blowout, but actually, Syracuse had plenty of chances to turn this into a tightly contested matchup like the previous two seasons. The Orange possessed the ball inside the Clemson 10-yard line four times and walked away with just six points.

Syracuse settled for two chip shot field goals on its first two red-zone possessions, but the Orange received another red-zone opportunity after returning an interception from Lawrence to the Clemson 9-yard line.

The Orange were trailing by 11, but with a touchdown on that possession, this one probably doesn’t turn into a laughing stock. Instead, Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito gave it right back to Clemson with his own interception.

Opportunity came knocking for the Syracuse offense again, as the defense once more intercepted Lawrence and returned it to the Clemson 3-yard line. But the chance ended with practically the same result.

On four plays, Syracuse gained two yards, falling short of the goal line and turning the ball back over to Clemson. Off both the interception and turnover on downs, Clemson scored touchdowns, putting the game out of reach.

DeVito’s interception was a giant mistake, but he was also under pressure all night. Because Syracuse was missing its starting center, three Orange offensive linemen played out of position, and it showed, as Clemson recorded eight sacks.

When Syracuse did have enough protection and DeVito made the right decision, Orange wide receivers failed to make plays as well. Syracuse didn’t convert its first third-down opportunity because of a drop from wide receiver Taj Harris and other long pass attempts when the game was still undecided slipped through Orange receivers’ hands.

With the result Saturday, Clemson and Syracuse appear to be headed in opposite directions. The Tigers set a program record 18 straight victories with the win in Week 3 while the Orange seemingly face an uphill battle to second place again in Atlantic Division.

If Syracuse proves to vastly underperform its preseason ranking, maybe Clemson will get a challenge from another conference foe somewhere else on the schedule. But for now, the narrative is the Tigers outscored their two toughest preseason opponents, 65-16, and don’t appear to be getting another test this season until December.