Saturday afternoon’s matchup between #1 Clemson and Syracuse was many games in one. It went from blowout to scrappy underdog comeback to superior team in cruise control to underdog comeback again to heavily-favored team escapes. All that was part of the Tigers’ 37-27 win over the Orange in front of a raucous crowd at the Carrier Dome.
In the end, though, it was just another game of the 2015 season that ends up on the “what could have been” pile for SU (3-7, 1-5 ACC), who dropped their seventh straight game, essentially knocking the Orange from bowl eligibility. Due to the number of teams needed to fill every bowl game spot, the possibility exists of Syracuse getting a bowl invite, but they will need to win their final two games and many other factors will be involved on top of that.
In any case, top-ranked Clemson seized the lead early, using their quick strike offense to get an early lead. Two plays into the game, the Tigers were in the end zone. After Syracuse’s Zach Mahoney fumbled on a botched handoff, Clemson recovered at the Orange 23. A handful of plays later, the Tigers scored again and held a 14-0 lead with less then two minutes elapsed.
SU went three-and-out on their next drive and it appeared that the rout was on.
Ron Thompson had other plans. The defensive end caused and recovered a fumble inside the Tigers’ 30, bringing the Carrier Dome crowd to life. That crowd exploded seconds later when Erv Philips raced into the end zone from 28 yards out on the next play. Cole Murphy connected on the extra point to slice the Clemson lead to 14-7.
The Orange defense caused another fumble on the next Tiger drive when Antwan Cordy jarred the ball loose after a completed pass. The football tumbled away from a series of players but Marquez Hodge eventually corralled it for Syracuse at their own 46. SU put together a modest drive, but Murphy’s 48-yard field goal was blocked and Clemson took possession at their own 25 midway through the first quarter.
The SU defense forced a quick punt from Clemson and the offense took over at their own 44. On third-and-six, Jordan Fredericks took a handoff and found lots of green in front of him, eventually being brought down at the Clemson 10. On the next play, Mahoney kept the ball on the option and scooted into the end zone for the score. Murphy booted the conversion and the game that had started so horribly for the Orange was 14-14 with 3:34 left in the first quarter.
The Tigers righted their ship, wrapping a pair of touchdowns around a three-and-out by SU for a 28-14 lead just over two minutes into the second quarter.
After each team punted, the Orange put together a modest drive, resulting in another 48-yard field goal try from Murphy. This kick was good and Syracuse was within 11 points with 3:30 left before half. Clemson replied with their own field goal for a 31-17 lead with 37 ticks remaining and Syracuse opted to go to the locker room with that score.
After each team punted once, the Orange were the first team to get on the scoreboard in the second half. Starting at their own three-yard-line, the Orange set off on a long drive. Mahoney found Steve Ishmael for a 30-yard completion on third down, then connected with Brisly Estime for 17 more yards. The walk-on quarterback then scrambled for 30 yards to the Tiger 23 and Clemson took a timeout to reorganize.
The break did not help. Three plays later, Mahoney kept the ball on the option and found the end zone again, this time from a dozen yards out. Murphy’s extra point was true and SU drew within 31-24 just past the midpoint of the third.
The Syracuse defense rose to the occasion on the next drive, again stopping Clemson for a three-and-out in their own end, only this time, an official’s flag penalized the Orange 15 yards on a hands to the face infraction and SU coach Scott Shafer exploded on the sideline. His tirade drew another flag, this one for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving the guests another 15 free yards that put them on the Orange half of the field.
A handful of plays later, those flags did not matter, as Juwan Dowels made a sensational play to intercept a Clemson pass at the SU 25. The Orange offense could not move the ball and, after they punted back to Clemson, the Tigers got a field goal to extend their lead to 34-24 less than 90 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Syracuse offense was undeterred, however. Following a touchback, George Morris II raced 51 yards on a handoff to the Tigers’ 24. Mahoney carried to the 13 on the next play, but SU could not get another first down. Murphy again was called on to kick and his 24-yard field goal pulled the Orange within seven points once more, this time with 10:18 left on the clock.
Clemson started their next drive with a 39-yard run, which enabled them to generate a field goal from the drive and go up by a 37-27 score with just under seven minutes to play.
The Orange offense sputtered and punted on fourth-and-eight from their own 37. The Tigers took over from their own 20 on a touchback and put together an odd drive. In spite of trying to kill the clock, Clemson passed the ball frequently and called a pair of time outs. The Tigers even got a pair of first downs via penalty, the first a backbreaking holding call on the Orange and the second an offside flag on a field goal that Clemson accepted, taking the points off the board. Following the latter call, the visitors opted to down out the clock.
SU ran up 242 yards on the ground, paced by George Morris II, who had 14 carries for 80 yards. Zach Mahoney added 76 yards on ten attempts, including a pair of scores. Mahoney added 80 yards through the air on 8-of-21 passing.
The Orange defense, which was gashed for 352 yards in the first half, tightened the screws after the intermission, but still gave up 214 yards after the break. Cordell Hudson led the unit with eight stops on the day. Ron Thompson had a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and tackle for loss. Antwan Cordy forced a fumble that Marquez Hodge recovered and Juwan Dowels had an interception for the third Orange forced turnover.
The Orange return to action next week when their final road trip of the season has them playing at North Carolina State. The Wolfpack (6-4, 2-4) have dropped two of their last three, including blowing a ten-point first quarter lead to #16 Florida State on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 12:30pm Eastern and the game can be televised by the ACC Network (check local listings), as well as streamed online at ESPN3.com.