Saturday afternoon, Syracuse was able to give Clemson half a game, outscoring the top-ranked team in the nation by a 21-10 margin from late in the first quarter through late in the third quarter. The first and fourth quarters were a different story altogether as the Tigers (6-0, 5-0 ACC) blew the doors off the Orange (1-5, 1-4) in those two periods and claimed a 47-21 victory.
Clemson needed a little over the first ten minutes of action to grab a 17-0 stranglehold on the game and scored three touchdowns in under six minutes to close out the scoring with just under 11 minutes remaining. That the undermanned SU squad was able to put a scare into the #1 Tigers is a credit to their effort and some big plays.
That effort, though, was undermined by an offense that was not up to a very difficult task. Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper was responsible for four turnovers that the hosts were able to transform into 17 points. The Orange, who were without top receiver Taj Harris, who was suspended for the game and did not travel with the team, also started the game by converting just 2-of-10 third downs.
Making matters worse, SU freshman running back Sean Tucker was injured late in the second quarter and lost for the remainder of the game. Tucker, who ran for 100 yards twice in three games, had ten carries for 63 yards before leaving.
Clemson struck quickly after the opening kick, needing under 90 seconds to get on the board with a touchdown. Just over three minutes later, the Tigers picked off a tipped Culpepper pass to set up a short field goal that extended their lead to 10-0. The hosts then ripped off another quick score, pushing their advantage to 17-0 with 4:25 left in the opening quarter.
Syracuse slowly crawled back into the game. Drew Tuazama blocked a Clemson punt in the final minute of the first quarter and Kyle Strickland recovered for the Orange at the Tigers’ 20. Four plays later, Tucker took a handoff to the right side and hit a cutback lane, slashing into the end zone from seven yards out. Andre Szmyt tacked on the extra point, making it a 17-7 game less than a minute into the second session.
Clemson missed a chance to extend the margin on their next possession when a 37-yard field goal try missed, but they marched for an 87-yard touchdown drive on their next possession and a 24-7 lead.
The Tigers’ next possession was much shorter, as the Orange’s Garrett Williams intercepted a poorly thrown pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. Szmyt booted the extra point and SU trailed, 24-14. Clemson responded with a quick drive that netted a field goal on the final play of the half and took a 27-14 lead to the locker room.
Syracuse drew first blood after halftime, scoring on their second possession of the third quarter. Culpepper hit Nykeim Johnson with a deep pass down the right sideline and the Orange receiver outraced a defender for an 83-yard touchdown. Szmyt’s extra point drew SU within 27-21 shortly before the midpoint of the third.
The Syracuse defense held Clemson in check on their next two possessions, but the Tigers’ defensive unit made the next big play, sacking Culpepper and returning a fumble for a touchdown. The score gave Clemson a 34-21 lead and a jolt of life.
The Tigers tacked on two more quick touchdowns. The first was followed by an unsuccessful two-point conversion, but a quick interception of Culpepper set up a short field and the other touchdown. When the dust settled, Clemson had needed just 4:41 of game time to turn a six-point lead into a 47-21 stranglehold on the game.
The Orange got a big play on their next drive when Nykeim Johnson exploded for a 61-yard run to get inside the Tigers’ 10, but Culpepper was picked off in the end zone on the next play, ending the last SU threat of the day.
Rex Culpepper struggled much of the day, connecting on just 10-of-26 passes for 175 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. Anthony Queeley paced the Syracuse receiving corps with five receptions good for 58 yards. Nykeim Johnson had 154 all-purpose yards in the game.
Garrett Williams had a strong day to lead the Orange defense, posting a team-high eight tackles to go with an interception returned for a touchdown and two pass breakups. McKinley Williams had two tackles for loss, including a sack and Mikel Jones forced a fumble.
SU will return to action on Saturday when they host Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons improved to 3-2 on the season and 2-2 in ACC play on Saturday when they upset #19 Virginia Tech at home, 23-16. Freshman defensive back Nick Andersen was a force for Wake, snaring three interceptions, including one to seal the game with eight seconds to play.
Kenneth Walker III and Christian Beal-Smith form a two-headed rushing attack for the Deacs. Walker leads the team with three 100-yard games, 449 yards, and eight scores while Beal-Smith has a pair of 100-yard efforts, 385 yards and four touchdowns. Sam Hartman has thrown for just over 1,000 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
Wake Forest and Syracuse will get underway at noon Eastern and the action will be televised by the ACC Network.