Clemson vs. Syracuse score, takeaways: No. 5 Tigers bench DJ Uiagalelei in home comeback

In Sport

No. 5 Clemson overcame four turnovers and a quarterback change to survive an upset bid from No. 14 Syracuse in a 27-21 comeback that was more than just an addition to the win column for the Tigers. The victory marked Clemson’s 38th straight victory in Death Valley, breaking the record for the longest home winning streak in ACC history previously held by Bobby Bowden’s Florida State program in a run from 1995-2001.

Though Clemson had some upset scares along the way — including another one against Syracuse back in 2018 — the Tigers have not lost at home since 2016.

Beyond the historic victory for Clemson came a tough moment for coach Dabo Swinney, who chose to bench starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei for true freshman Cade Klubnik. Uiagalelei had accounted for three of Clemson’s four turnovers (two interceptions and a lost fumble returned 90 yards for a Syracuse touchdown) before he was replaced by Klubnik, the former five-star prospect from Austin, Texas, late in the third quarter.

Klubnik did not receive a heavy workload, completing just 2 of 4 pass attempts for 19 yards, but he did complete a pass to the back of the end zone on a 2-point conversion and played a role in the running game as Clemson outscored the visiting Orange 17-0 in the fourth quarter. Running back Will Shipley’s 50-yard breakaway score was a turning point in the game and a part of a tremendous offensive performance as Clemons’s star carried 27 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.

The Tigers defense played the biggest role in helping keep the team’s College Football Playoff hopes alive; it limited the Orange to just two offensive touchdowns in the first half, held it scoreless in the second half and nabbed a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter.

That’s not to say that Syracuse coach Dino Babers and offensive coordinator Robert Anae did not have success in the game. The dual-threat ability of QB Garrett Shrader and the explosiveness of running back Sean Tucker kept Clemson’s defense on its heels throughout the first half. 

Despite Clemson’s defensive dominance and Syracuse’s gumption as a two-touchdown road underdog, no story from this game is more significant than what Swinney and the offensive staff will decide to do at the quarterback position. 

Here’s what you need to know about Clemson’s plans at quarterback and more from the Tigers’ thrilling win: 

Dabo says DJ is “our guy” at QB

Though Uiagalelei was benched and Clemson has a recent history of five-star freshmen overtaking incumbent starters at the quarterback position, Swinney seems to be committed to Klubnik’s promotion as a part-time change. 

“Sometimes, you know, Steph Curry goes 2 for 25. Your best player sometimes can have a bad day,” Swinney told ESPN after the game. “He just got out of rhythm, made some bad plays. We just needed a change. We showed them we got that guy that can com in. DJ’s our quarterback. There ain’t no question about that. That’s our guy. That’s our leader. You can write that right now: DJ’s our guy. He’s got to play better, and he will, but how about Cade coming in and leading these guys?” 

The timing of this moment could not have worked out better for Clemson. The Tigers don’t have to turn around and send Uiagalelei right back into action with Klubnik now prepped and somewhat proven in competitive minutes. Clemson is off next week and won’t be back in action until a trip to play Notre Dame in South Bend on Nov. 5. 

While the Fighting Irish are not the top-five team that many projected coming into the season, they do have a formidable defense that will likely take notes from Syracuse’s game plan to try to have similar success against Uiagalelei. If the turnover issues persist, and if this wasn’t just a “Steph Curry off night,” then Clemson also has the extra week to put together a game plan featuring Klubnik. Either way, the time off will allow all of the potential quarterback controversy talk to simmer and Uiagalelei to hit reset after his worst performance of the year. 

Clemson’s pass rush won the game

Though the game was officially won by an interception, the entire second half was won by Clemson’s defensive front absolutely feasting at the line of scrimmage. The Tigers finished with five sacks, nine tackles for loss and drew multiple holding penalties that forced Syracuse into third-and-long situations. As the game wore on, the elite players up front simply wore down Syracuse’s offensive line. Tyler Davis finished with two sacks, Bryan Bresee and KJ Henry recorded a sack apiece, and Myles Murphy was all over the place even though he officially recorded just 0.5 sacks. 

The best Clemson teams in the Swinney era have had high-level quarterback play, but they’ve also been complemented by defensive lines capable of taking over late in games. That’s what we saw in the second half on Saturday against Syracuse, and that’ll likely be a theme as the Tigers try to maintain this unbeaten status all the way to another College Football Playoff appearance. 

New Year’s Six still in play for Syracuse

Losing an ACC game, especially to Clemson, might have bounced Syracuse from ACC Atlantic contention. The Tigers would need to drop both of their final conference games (Louisville and Miami, both at home) in order for the Orange to make it to Charlotte to compete for the conference championship. 

What is still on the table, however, is the chance for Babers to lead Syracuse to a premier bowl game, especially with a crucial head-to-head against Wake Forest left on the schedule. The Demon Daecons, which also currently have just one loss and are ranked in the top 15 of the AP Top 25, will be a potential candidate to make a New Year’s Six game if Clemson makes the CFP. If the Orange can defeat the Demon Deacons on Nov. 19 and maintain their one-loss status against a slate of Notre Dame, Pitt, Florida State and Boston College, then they will have a shot at their biggest bowl game since the 1999 Orange Bowl. 

Read More: Clemson vs. Syracuse score, takeaways: No. 5 Tigers bench DJ Uiagalelei in home comeback

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