The stat sheet said Clemson dominated Saturday night’s game against Syracuse, and for the most part the Tigers did. But it was far from a perfect performance by Dabo Swinney’s squad.
Here are five things we learned from the Tigers’ 41-6 victory:
Isaiah Simmons has taken his game to another level
The junior has blossomed into a superstar for the Tigers. Simmons led Clemson in tackles (11), tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (2) as he was perhaps the biggest reason why the Orange struggled to get anything going offensively. Simmons is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, has the size to make plays at the line of scrimmage and the speed to cover running backs, tight ends and receivers in space.
“He’s just a special talent. He’s long, he’s smart. He’s physical. He’s just one of those rare guys that comes along every now and then that can do a lot of different things,” Swinney said. “We’ve done a nice job of positioning him differently and asking him to do different things. Just super proud of him.”
Trevor Lawrence is not invincible
Lawrence was the star of the College Football Playoff as a freshman, leading the Tigers to wins over Notre Dame and Alabama. He entered 2019 as the Heisman favorite and with expectations through the roof. But through three games Lawrence has more interceptions in 2019 (five) than he did in all of 2018 (four). There is no reason to panic, but Lawrence appears to be pressing at times.
“Big picture, a lot of yards, a lot of big plays, scored a lot of points and did a lot of good things. But we know that we can be a lot better. And that’s a good thing. If you think after that that’s the best we can do, that’s not,” Lawrence said. “We can play so much better than that. It’s really a positive thing. ... We’re not a finished product yet. Every week we’re trying to get better.”
Clemson’s goal line defense is incredible
Syracuse started two drives inside Clemson’s 10-yard line. The Orange came away with no points on either of them. For the game, Syracuse had four trips to the red zone and finished with six points. Clemson has allowed opponents to reach the red zone nine times this season. They have scored touchdowns only twice, and in nine red-zone trips the Tigers have allowed 23 points, less than three points per trip.
“We had two goal line stands... just really proud of the D and how they responded, never allowed them to get any momentum,” Swinney said. “Obviously there were a couple of chances where they could’ve gotten some momentum, but our defense kind of stuffed it out.”
Mario Goodrich was ready for his opportunity
Starting cornerback Derion Kendrick went down with back spasms, and sophomore Mario Goodrich stepped up. Goodrich played most of the second half in place of Kendrick and made perhaps the biggest play of the game. Lawrence had just thrown an interception to set Syracuse up with a first-and-goal inside the 10 with the Orange still hanging around early in the third quarter when Goodrich picked off Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito on the very next play.
“Mario did a great job. Y’all have heard me talk about him many times. Really incredibly encouraged with what we saw out of him all through camp. So it’s great just to have a little success,” Swinney said. “That’s going to be huge for him and his confidence. He did fine his first couple of games, but to be able to make a play like that in that moment, that’s huge. He’s just going to continue to get better.”
We’re going to see more of Brent Venables mixing up his personnel
Just as he did against Texas A&M, Clemson’s defensive coordinator was constantly throwing new looks at Syracuse to keep their offense from finding its rhythm. Clemson used four-man fronts and three-man fronts and moved Simmons around from linebacker to safety. It also played backup safeties Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson extended playing time alongside starters K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse. The result was 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks and less than 200 yards of offense allowed.
“It all starts up front. We lost a lot of players, but we’ve still got some guys around here that can play football,” Swinney said. “They’re just gonna get better. They’re growing and maturing. They’ve accepted the challenge.”