Clemson lost its starting quarterback and then lost its perfect record, as Dino Babers and the Orange got a program-changing win in the Carrier Dome.
Friday the 13th madness has struck the college football world, as Syracuse (4-3) scored a huge 27-24 upset of No. 2 Clemson (6-1) at the Carrier Dome.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who came into the game with a banged up ankle, left the game in the first half with an apparent concussion. His counterpart, Orange junior Eric Dungey, was banged up himself but made enough plays down the stretch, including a lunging first-down conversion in the final minutes to help run out the clock on the Tigers’ comeback chances.
It's a crushing blow to the Tigers' College Football Playoff hopes. Here are three reasons why Syracuse, who entered the game as a 22.5-point underdog, was able to pull off the stunner.
Kelly Bryant was hobbled even before the injury
Bryant rolled his ankle during Clemson's win over Wake Forest last week, and there was some doubt as to whether he'd be healthy enough to start Friday. He played, but Bryant was far from himself in the first half. Usually a dynamic runner—he came into the game with seven rushing touchdowns and averaging 4.1 yards per carry—Bryant only ran four times in the first half for a total of -8 yards. He was hesitant to turn it loose and looked uncomfortable cutting, and his running threat is a crucial element of the Tigers' offense.
According to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Bryant tweaked the ankle late in the second quarter. A few plays later, on Clemson's last offensive play of the second quarter, Bryant tried to take off down the middle but was wrapped up and slammed to the ground by Syracuse defensive tackle Chris Slayton. Bryant's head smashed into the turf, and he lay motionless for several seconds as trainers attended to him. He walked off the field with the training staff's assistance, and Swinney revealed during his halftime interview it appeared Bryant has a concussion.
After entering the season carrying the pressure of following up a program legend like Deshaun Watson, Bryant has become the Tigers' leader both on and off the field, and the Tigers did not look like nearly the same explosive offense without their starting quarterback. Bryant was replaced by redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper Jr., who played solid—he was 10 of 14 for 88 passing yards—but it's hard to believe Clemson loses this game with a healthy Bryant. But Bryant wasn't healthy, not at any point of the night.
Dino Babers's Baylor-inspired offense gave Clemson fits
Babers coached under Art Briles at Baylor, and his offense uses many concepts from those Air Raid attacks that put up video-game numbers a few years ago before Briles left the program in disgrace. The underlying goal is to spread the field and play extremely fast, and if the defense isn't fully prepared, wide-open touchdowns aren't uncommon. A blown coverage sprung Ervin Phillips free up the seam for a 66-yard touchdown in the first half that helped Syracuse regain momentum after a Clemson drive ended in a missed field goal.
Clemson’s vaunted defense struggled to get stops when it needed them most. The Tigers let up a season-high 162 rushing yards (the previous high was 133, which the Tigers gave up to Wake Forest last week). Dungey had a game he won't soon forget, going 20 of 32 for 278 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and adding 61 critical rushing yards on 21 carries. After scoring just 47 points over the first three games, Syracuse has posted 26, 25, 27 and 27 in the next four. Those aren't ridiculous totals, but it's an improvement, and hanging 27 on the defending national champions is no small feat. The offense is starting to click, plain and simple.
What on earth was that fake punt?
Down 27–24, Clemson had a fourth-and-six on the Syracuse 41-yard-line with 6:10 remaining. That's clear punt territory—Clemson had only two timeouts remaining and were in position to pin Syracuse deep, where the Tigers' defense could reasonably have been trusted to get a stop and get the ball back. If they get Syracuse to go three-and-out there, Clemson likely gets the ball in good field position needing just a field goal to send the game to overtime.
Instead, Swinney dialed up a bizarre fake, where punter Will Spiers pulled up and uncorked a deep pass intended for linebacker Tanner Muse. It fell incomplete, and Syracuse took over near midfield. Of course, Syracuse still had to get multiple first downs to put the game away, but the field position opened up Babers's entire playbook—Clemson had already forced some tense moments in prior drives where Syracuse had been backed up.
Swinney has never been afraid to roll the dice, but this didn't seem like the time, and it backfired horribly.