Connoisseurs of defense might savor the beauty, but an offense sputtering as if it had water in the fuel tank continued to cast a shadow over a Clemson season glowing with promise after five games.
Marked by breathtaking offensive mistakes, Clemson’s 16-6 homecoming win against Syracuse largely was a product of a defense that seemed to take great glee in carrying a nationally ranked team and a program that built its reputation on prolific offense.
“As long as we have one more point than the opponent, that’s all that matters,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We got it done.”
Ammon Lakip kicked three field goals and Stanton Seckinger caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, but Clemson’s fifth consecutive win pivoted on field position and three Syracuse turnovers.
“It’s just how it’s been happening,” said senior nose tackle Grady Jarrett, who had one of 12 tackles for loss. “We kept them out of the end zone tonight, just did our job.”
Yardage came in fits and lurches as 21st-ranked Clemson (6-2 overall, 5-1 ACC), which committed six turnovers in its first seven games, added four Saturday, including a season-high three in the first half.
“We had to hold Syracuse down until they (the offense) got going,” Jarrett said. “When they got it going, we turned out with a win.”
Keeping the seat warm until injured freshman Deshaun Watson returns in a few weeks, quarterback Cole Stoudt completed 24 of 35 passes for 209 yards but was intercepted twice and fumbled at the Clemson 25-yard line.
Junior running back C.J. Davidson, who had provided a jump-start in the first half, fumbled Stoudt’s option pitch at the Syracuse 8 with the end zone begging him to score.
Until Stoudt and tight end Seckinger connected on a 19-yard touchdown pass with 14:28 to play, Clemson had not scored a touchdown at home since the fourth quarter of the N.C. State game. It would be the only one.
“Things go wrong. You can’t be perfect every play,” Stoudt said. “There’s a little bit of frustration here and there, but we found a way to win.”
Meantime, Lakip kicked field goals of 38, 18 and 42 yards – he’s missed once since misfiring twice at Florida State.
“Calmer, yeah, I guess you could say that,” said Lakip, describing how he recovered after missing three of four in two road games the first three weeks. “I don’t think I’ll play in a place like FSU or Sanford Stadium again this season.”
Stubborn in its insistence on establishing the run, it became a matter of survival as Clemson squeezed the clock in the second half. Redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman delivered with 101 yards – a season high for a Clemson back – on 28 carries. Clemson finished with 166 yards rushing, with Davidson totaling 38 on nine carries and Stoudt 36 on eight.
Making it all the more impressive was the fact that an offensive line already stretched thin played without left tackle Isaiah Battle, who was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Center Ryan Norton left the game in the fourth quarter.
“A lot of guys, right now, are playing in pain,” Seckinger said.
Versatile Reid Webster began at right guard, moved to left tackle briefly and finished at center. Converted defensive lineman Rod Byers and defensive tackle D.J. Reader were added as blockers in short yardage.
“It’s something we’ve kind of gotten used to,” said Webster, pointing out that, despite the patchwork quilt in an area where continuity is preferable, Clemson allowed one sack last week and one Saturday. “I played next to a lot of different guys.”
Clemson punted five times after three snaps and did not score until its fifth possession.
“Nothing’s easy right now,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “You just try to stay simple and try to create momentum and let your guys go make a play.”
After a crushing loss at home a year ago, Syracuse struggled in its first visit to Death Valley, totaling 170 yards – 88 rushing and 82 passing – the fourth consecutive Clemson opponent held to fewer than 300 total and the fifth with fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Quarterback A.J. Long completed 12 of 27 for 82 yards and was intercepted by safety Robert Smith and linebacker Stephone Anthony. Syracuse had allowed five sacks this season. Clemson sacked Long four times.
Clemson last won with more turnovers than its opponent in the Chick-fil-A victory against LSU two seasons ago.
Corner Brandon Reddish’s interception in the first quarter launched Syracuse’s first scoring drive, which ended with Cole Murphy’s 43-yard field goal. Murphy added a 50-yarder as time expired in the half and Clemson trailed at half for the first time this season.
Syracuse’s longest drive was the 61 yards before Murphy’s first field goal. The next longest was 27 in the game’s final minutes.
“We can’t worry about what the offense does,” Robert Smith said. “Our job is to get the ball back.
“If they don’t score, then how can they win, that’s our mentality,” he said. “That’s what we are really thriving off of right now, and that’s a lot of momentum.”
A long rest before a Thursday night game at Wake Forest (Nov. 6) couldn’t come at a better time.
“Absolutely,” Morris said. “We definitely need a bye week right now. Hopefully, we’ll get a few guys back.”