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What We Learned From Clemson's Escape of Syracuse on Friday Night

Coming out of a 17-14 win, the Clemson Tigers are who they are, aren't playing a clean game and need more recognition on defense.

During the Major League Baseball season, the Atlanta Braves were mired in mediocrity and riddled with injuries most of the summer. 

There was a stretch of games from July 16-Aug. 2 in which they would lose a game, win the next time out and then lose again, win again, lose again, etc. Atlanta played 18 consecutive contests in that manner, struggling to build momentum. 

Eventually, after making some trades in late July, the Braves broke out of their funk and went on to win the NL East. They're now playing the NLCS of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers and sit three wins away from making the World Series. 

The results are a little different, but Clemson football is also stuck in its own "Groundhog Day." The formula for every game seems the same. The Tigers try to run the ball, struggle to throw, get big stops on defense and then hope they can hold the opponent out of the end zone (or keep them from tying the game on a field goal) late in the contest. 

It's mind-numbing that all five of Clemson's games against FBS teams have been decided by seven points or less, including the opener against No. 1 Georgia. The Tigers are 4-2 coming out of Friday night's 17-14 victory at Syracuse, but the offense has yet to produce more than 21 points in games against FBS competition. 

Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has yet to throw for more than 207 yards in a contest this season. The offensive line continues to shuffle and struggle with missed assignments. The injury bug is still taking its toll on this team. 

Every week is déjà vu. 

Still, here's a look at what was learned about the Tigers coming out of another close win: 

This is Clemson

Coming out of the open date, there was real hope on the Tigers staff that an offensive turnaround was coming. Despite ranking last in the conference in points and yards per game, Clemson wanted to "explode" against the Orange, who happened to be ranked 22nd in total defense at the time. 

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And sure enough, it didn't happen. The Tigers struggled to get to 314 yards, and after scoring two first-half touchdowns, they never came close to the end zone in the final 30 minutes. The defense, meanwhile, did what it had to do to secure a win. At this point in the season, it's perfectly fine to accept that this is who the Tigers are, and any improvement will be incremental. It's hard to say you need any more sample size to figure this team out.

"We are nowhere near where we'd thought we be, but we're continuing to battle," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. "We have to continue to help them as coaches, keep them encouraged, and coach our tails off. Every week, if it's going to be a one-possession game, we have to cut out the mistakes that cost you."

This is not a clean team

Speaking of mistakes, the Tigers were called for seven penalties, including three offensive holding calls, against Syracuse. While they didn't turn the ball over, they did put the ball on the turf twice, including a bad snap that left them with a second-and-27 early in the second half. 

"The positive is we are finding a way to win, but really making it hard on ourselves with missed plays, critical penalties, things we control," Swinney said. "Our kids battled. You have to give them credit."

It's time to realize that this Clemson squad simply isn't capable of playing a game without so many errors. Chalk it up to the youth in some spots and the depth being tested because of injuries, but there are also so many gaps in fundamentals. Whether it's jumping pre-snap or having three linemen miss a block on one defender or wide-open receivers dropping passes, it cost Clemson points at Syracuse. If the Tigers fixed much of this, there would be opportunities to extend drives and keep the opponent from seemingly always having the ball late with a chance to win. 

Defense deserves even more recognition

Brent Venables is earning every single penny of his more than $2 million contract this year. He's saddled with an offense that forces the defensive coordinator and his unit to be at their best every game. And Friday was no exception. After they gave up 138 rushing yards in the first half, the Tigers shut Sean Tucker down, allowing 27 yards in the second half. 

Despite Syracuse hitting on a 62-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, it was one of only five of the Orange's third-down conversions. Xavier Thomas and the pass rush applied enough pressure to Garrett Shrader to keep him from stringing together any hot streaks throwing the ball. Everybody knows Clemson's defense is talented, and even though it's banged up and had to play without star cornerback Andrew Booth, it still never ceases to impress. Maybe more positives about the defense, instead of the negatives of the offense, need to be the storylines of this team right now. 

"Well the defense is the strength of the team right now until the offense grows up and starts playing cleaner," Swinney said. 

Youth movement 

It might be hard to find a ton of positives in this bizarre 2021 season for the Tigers, but here's one for you that came to mind Friday night: The program is growing up a lot of young players. For instance, in the second half, because of injuries to receivers E.J. Williams and Frank Ladson Jr., the Tigers have had to go deep on the roster. Freshmen Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins and sophomore Ajou Ajou played a good bit. 

Defensive tackles Tre Williams, Ruke Orhorhoro and Etinosa Reuben benefited from facing a top-tier back like Tucker. Tyler Venables had an interception and a tackle for a loss. Andrew Mukuba broke up a pass and had three tackles on the backend. Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah combined for 106 rushing yards, many of them tough against a solid Orange front. These things don't necessarily pop out at you on the stat sheet, but all of these young talents getting vital experience on the road are going to pay dividends down the road, even if it's not this season. 

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