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Facing Adversity, Clemson Found Their Identity

Clemson found their identity

The Tigers have seemingly been on cruise control the last few seasons. Show up, play well, win, go home, and then repeat. There have been few moments over the last couple of seasons in which they have found themselves pinned against the wall with adversity to overcome. This past Saturday was one of those rare times, and they responded like a championship program would. Despite losing its quarterback, Clemson found their identity. Physicality and toughness at the line of scrimmage are the traits that define this team. It’s also what led them to a come from behind victory on Saturday.

Facing Adversity; Clemson Found Their Identity

When Things Go Wrong

Dabo Swinney’s Tigers had a tumultuous week leading up to the Syracuse game.  After naming true freshman Trevor Lawrence the starter, they saw senior Kelly Bryant leave in order to preserve his final year of eligibility. This story took over headlines across the college football landscape. Syracuse came to Memorial Stadium looking to repeat their surprise performance from a season ago when they upset the Tigers. The Orange came out swinging, and led for most of the first half. Late in the second quarter, Lawrence suffered a neck injury while scrambling and was forced to leave the game. With Bryant’s decision earlier in the week, that meant redshirt-freshman Chase Brice had to take over under center.

Syracuse had the lead when Lawrence got injured, and added a field goal before the end of the half to make it 16-7. The defense had looked suspect on the back end, giving up multiple big plays in the passing game. The offense was stuck in neutral. Mistakes and inefficiency are not the norm for this Tigers program. A muffed punt in the fourth quarter led to a Syracuse touchdown that put them up 23-13 with 13 minutes to go. In the face of adversity, Clemson found their identity, and took the game over.

Living Up to the Billing

All off-season the Clemson defensive line was touted as possibly one of the best in college football history. Four potential NFL draft picks starting, talented back-ups for relief, and two five star recruits now in as freshmen made for an impressive looking depth chart. In the second half on Saturday they showed how dominant they could be. They forced Syracuse into three punts and an interception on their first four drives after the break. A fumbled punt allowed the Orange a short field, which they converted to points, but otherwise they were suffocated in final two quarters. Clemson found their identity in controlling the line of scrimmage. They harassed quarterback Eric Dungey into rushed throws, and shut down the Syracuse rushing attack.

The Tiger defense allowed zero yards on seven plays over the final two drives they faced. Even with the lead and the clock on their side, Syracuse didn’t attempt to run the ball on their next to last drive. Some of that is poor game management, some if the lack of belief that they could run on this front seven. On the final drive of the game, freshman Xavier Thomas sacked Dungey for a nine yard loss. This forced a 4th and long that the Orange couldn’t convert. With the offense stalling most of the game, this defense stepped up and took over in the second half. They were able to keep things close so the door was left open for a comeback.

Running Through the door

The defense allowed the door to a comeback to remain open, and the Tiger offense ran right through it. Clemson’s play-makers at the skill positions were going to be crucial even with the ultra-talented Lawrence taking over at quarterback. When he went down with injury, the need for them to step up was even greater. Tailback Travis Etienne answered the call in a big way on Saturday. He finished with a career high 203 yards and three touchdowns. Etienne showed he is much more than a big play guy at the running back position. He earned the tough yards on Saturday, and carried his team to victory. Combined with Tavien Feaster (44 yards) and Adam Choice (58 yards) the running backs totaled over 300 yards on the ground.

Even in losing its starting quarterback, Clemson found their identity. They are a physical team capable of controlling the line of scrimmage and wearing down opponents. The offensive line flexed their muscle, pounding on the Syracuse defense. Ultimately they beat them into submission by games end. The game winning drive was evidence of this. Twelve of the thirteen plays were runs, seven of those went for five yards or more. Clemson’s lineman showed they could both power off the line and pull around the formation to make their blocks in space. Etienne capped of the drive with a two yard scoring run, giving the Tigers the 27-23 lead.

Powering Through

With their backs against the wall, the Tigers used their physicality and toughness to overcome adversity and remain undefeated. When they needed to most, Clemson found their identity, and were able to avoid a second consecutive upset at the hands of Syracuse. Lawrence suffered a neck sprain, but has returned to practice and isn’t expected to miss any more time. He will get more comfortable as the season moves along, and the offense should continue to evolve in to a more explosive downfield attack. However as that development is ongoing, the Tigers will need lean on their ground game and defense. This past Saturday proved that when adversity strikes, their ability to control games on both sides of the line is something they can rely on.


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