For Clemson, making a switch at quarterback was thought to be a no-brainer.
Even though Kelly Bryant started 18 games over the past two seasons, won 16 of them and led the Tigers to a College Football Playoff berth in 2017, college coaches like Dabo Swinney are always looking toward the future. In Clemson’s case, the future is Trevor Lawrence.
There was no way Lawrence, the No. 2 overall recruit in last year’s class, was going to redshirt after enrolling in January and participating through the spring and fall camps.
So, when Swinney announced this week that Lawrence was going to get his first start against Syracuse after a four-touchdown performance against Georgia Tech, Bryant announced he would transfer, calling the decision to start Lawrence a “slap in the face.”
Bryant’s departure left redshirt freshman Chase Brice as Lawrence's backup and put the Tigers in a vulnerable position with regards to experience if anything happened to Lawrence.
That worst case scenario is exactly what happened late in the second quarter when Lawrence took a hard hit to the helmet along the sideline. He would later be ruled out for the remainder of the game.
Fortunately, Clemson did not need Lawrence, rallying from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to beat Syracuse 27–23, keeping its playoff hopes alive and avoiding a second straight season of being upset by the Orange.
Following Lawrence’s injury, the Tigers were not about to put the game in Brice’s hands. Brice came into the game with eight career passes, and it showed as Clemson opened the second half with seven straight runs before setting Brice up with easy throws to settle him in.
It was that running game that saved Clemson’s season, rushing for 293 yards on the day and repeatedly gashing the tired Syracuse defense in the second half.
The vast majority of those yards belonged to Travis Etienne, who rushed for a career-high 203 and provided the winning score, capping off a 94-yard, 12-play drive with a two-yard dash with 41 seconds remaining. The drive’s biggest play came on fourth down with less than three minutes to go when Brice connected on a 20-yard pass to Tee Higgins.
Syracuse can look back on this game and count the missed opportunities to pull off the upset.
After moving the ball effectively in the first half, Syracuse gained less than 100 yards in the second. Clemson’s touted defense line held the Orange to 61 rushing yards overall, and though Dungey threw for 250 yards, he had no passing TDs and one interception.
The Orange punted on each of their first four second half possessions, then cashed in with a Dungey score after Clemson's Amari Rodgers muffed a punt, going up 23–13.
But Clemson answered quickly to close the gap to three, going 75 yards in only 1:50 and scoring on a 26-yard run by Etienne.
After surviving at home, the questions for Clemson will now turn to the health of Lawrence. The third-ranked Tigers were not playing like a national championship contender before their young quarterback got hurt, and Lawrence's first start was uneven at best before the injury.
After completing a 19-yard dart to Higgins, the true freshman fumbled on a read option on his second play, which led to a 51-yard field goal by Syracuse's Andre Szmyt, one of three on the day for him.
Lawrence largely played it safe in his time on the field, using short-to-intermediate throws and taking few shots downfield. He finished 10 for 15 for 93 yards before leaving the game for good.
If he's out for any period of time, one would have to wonder about Bryant, who could possibly return to the team and, as of Saturday, was still enrolled in the school.
When asked about Bryant’s status at halftime and whether he would take back the senior quarterback, Swinney said, “Heck year, I love that kid.”
For Clemson’s and the ACC’s playoff aspirations, whether it’s Lawrence, Brice or Bryant moving forward, the Tigers could use the rest of the month to once again establish their running game. Clemson faces a favorable upcoming schedule, and Wake Forest, NC State and Florida State don’t exactly pose the greatest defensive threat as it heads toward another ACC crown.