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Ups and Downs: Clemson Earns First ACC Road Victory at Syracuse

A look at what Clemson did right, like protecting the football, and what the Tigers did wrong, like offensive third-down issues, in a 17-14 win at Syracuse on Friday.

Clemson (4-2, 3-1 ACC) picked up its first road conference victory on Friday night in a 17-14 win over Syracuse. 

The Tigers had plenty of ups and downs coming out of the week off, and this game wasn't much different than their last four games, leaving fewer questions in some areas but more in others. 


Red-zone scoring: Clemson's made two trips into the red zone and came away with two touchdowns: a 19-yard pass from D.J. Uiagalelei to Joseph Ngata and a 2-yard run by Kobe Pace. While the Tigers would've liked more visits to inside the 20, Friday showed marked improvement from last time out when they had to settle for too many field goals against Boston College. 

Uiagalelei's run game: The Clemson quarterback only averaged 2.4 yards per carry, but he was still effective in keeping Syracuse off guard with having an extra hat running the football. Orange coach Dino Babers noted to the ESPN sideline reporter at halftime that it was something he wasn't expecting the Tigers to do. His 11 carries marks the third time this season he's had double-digit totes. 

Big plays: Clemson has lacked explosive, down-field plays all season, and while this game wasn't necessarily a huge breakout in that department, it was an improvement. The Tigers had five pass plays and one run play go for 15 yards or more. 



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Turnover margin: Clemson didn't give the ball away on offense, even though it tried a couple of times. Meanwhile, the defense forced an interception of Garrett Shrader when Tyler Venables jumped in front of a pass deep in Clemson territory that almost certainly would've led to points. 

Linebackers: Clemson was led by its two most experienced linebackers. Baylon Spector (10 total tackles) and James Skalski (6 total tackles, 0.5 for a loss) played at or near the line of scrimmage much of the night, and there were integral in limiting star running back Sean Tucker to 25 yards rushing in the second half. 


Too many errant throws: Uiagalelei made a few really nice tosses, especially the one to Ngata, and he was hurt by a couple of drops from Justyn Ross, but too many throws still sailed too tall or wide for the intended targets, and some of that looks like it's coming from trying to throw so much in traffic. 

Third-down conversions: The Clemson offense got off to a nice start, converting four of their eight first-half third downs, but the tide turned in the second half. When they really needed them to sow the game away, the Tigers 1-of-7. It allowed Syracuse to have a shot at tying the game with a field goal that missed wide left. 

Offensive line issues: The injury bug struck again as Clemson was without center Hunter Rayburn, who started against BC two weeks ago. The front had to go with Mason Trotter and his broken hand at center so Matt Bockhorst and Will Putnam could play the two guard spots. Trotter had one really bad snap that went over Uiagalelei's head that cost Clemson field position and a possession. The rest of the line looked lost at times in the first half before settling down some. Still, against Syracuse's aggressive front, the Tigers only produced 3.4 yards per rush and gave up two sacks. 

Creativity for the sake of creativity: Clemson definitely tried some new things coming out of the off week. Backup quarterback Taisun Phommachanh took a snap behind center with Uiagalelei split wide, but the play produced a run that went nowhere. The Tigers ran new plays that started in the backfield and ended there. They tried different pitches and run-outs. Not much really worked except for one highlight: punter Will Spiers converting a fourth down with a 17-yard pass to Davis Allen on a fake. For the most part, though, Clemson's creativity didn't produce. 

Too conservative: Maybe it's a sign of just where this team is, but it didn't look like Dabo Swinney wanted to be the aggressor in this game. He opted to punt on a fourth-and-1 in his own territory in the first half, which was a sensible call, just conservative. Throughout the game, the offensive playcalling didn't want to really turn things loose and especially on the last two drives, Uiagalelei kept the ball four times in 11 plays. Whether it can or not, this just isn't a team that's willing to force the issue on offense anymore.