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Coming off back-to-back down-to-the-wire losses against Florida State and No. 19 Wake Forest, Syracuse returns to the Carrier Dome to host unranked Clemson on Friday night. The Tigers are attempting to win their seventh straight Atlantic Coast Conference Championship and their fourth straight game against SU.
Clemson is coming off a bye week, which followed its 19-13 home win over Boston College. Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei threw for 207 yards and running back Kobe Pryor ran for 125 yards and a touchdown. Overall, Clemson outran the Eagles 231-46, and it held on for the six-point lead.
Throughout the season, Clemson has struggled offensively, which is unusual for a team that has won double-digit games every season for the past 10 years. The Tigers rank 112th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring offense, but Syracuse has still emphasized throughout the week that Clemson is still stocked with talent across the board.
“Clemson still has athletes. They still have their coach,” wide receiver Courtney Jackson said. “We still have to take them seriously and prepare like any other Clemson team.”
Here’s everything to know about Clemson ahead of its visit to the Dome on Friday night:
Clemson leads 7-2.
Last time they played
Clemson and Syracuse met in South Carolina last October when the Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the country. Future top NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw his first pick-six of the season.
As expected, the Tigers got out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead behind a touchdown throw from Lawrence and a 25-yard running score by Travis Etienne. But in the second quarter, Sean Tucker scored from seven yards out to make it a 10-point game, and Garrett Williams picked off Lawrence and ran it back for a 39-yard interception return that made the score 24-14.
Syracuse’s offense was run by Rex Culpepper, who had an inconsistent game and finished 10-of-26 passing with a touchdown, three interceptions and two sacks. But his third-quarter pass to Nykeim Johnson resulted in an 83-yard touchdown that cut SU’s deficit to six. After a defensive stop, Culpepper fumbled the ball on his own half of the field, and the fumble was returned for a momentum-shifting scoop and score. Etienne tacked on two more touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, ending the Orange’s hopes of a massive road upset.
None of Clemson’s offensive trio of Lawrence, Etienne and wide receiver Amari Rodgers returned this season, each being drafted in one of the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
The Clemson report
This isn’t the same Clemson team as in years past. Uiagalelei hasn’t produced anywhere close to the same numbers that Lawrence did during his three years as starting quarterback, and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has struggled to put a complete, point-producing gameplan this season.
The Tigers are the highest-ranked team talent-wise and have one of the top defenses in the country, according to 247Sports. The struggles through the past five games — particularly in the losses to Georgia and NC State — have been from the offense, which has only scored more than 21 points once this season (against Football Championship Subdivision team South Carolina State).
Clemson ranks near the bottom of the country in passing yards per attempt with 5.7, a number that ranks 125th out of 130 FBS teams. Its rushing yards per attempt average of 4.52 is 56th-best in the country, a far cry from the averages that the Tigers posted with Lawrence and Etienne in the offense.
“The guys are giving effort,” Elliott said after Clemson scored just 14 points in a win over Georgia Tech. “The first part of our formula is to give effort with technique so we need to evaluate the technique. Some of it is going to be experience. Things happen fast so I’m looking at everything. Same thing with myself. It’s evaluating to see what I can do better to help these young men be successful.”
Defensively, Clemson is much more stout. The unit is the best in the ACC and second-best in the whole country, allowing just 12.2 points per game. Without defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ group, there’s a good chance the Tigers would have a losing record. Clemson has only allowed six touchdowns and 61 total points this year.
How Syracuse beats Clemson
The Orange will be facing a large disadvantage going against Clemson’s strong offensive and defensive line groups. SU head coach Dino Babers said the Tigers have the “best personnel” in the conference.
To overcome this, SU’s coordinators Tony White (defense) and Sterlin Gilbert (offense) will have to confuse Clemson through the construction of a unique game plan utilizing the linebacker blitz schemes that either bring extra defenders at the quarterback or drop more back into coverage. These schemes worked in Syracuse’s win over Liberty, when quarterback Malik Willis was sacked six times. The Orange are the top sacks team in the ACC, and this will have to continue that against Uiagalelei and Clemson to get the win.
It will be interesting to see whether Garrett Shrader and Tucker can still find space to run against Clemson’s defense. The Tigers’ run defense is 21st in the country at just over 100 yards allowed per game, while Syracuse’s rushing attack earns 242.8 yards per game. Although it’s unclear which offensive linemen will play, the ones who do appear will have to create holes for the Orange’s one-two rushing punch.
Shrader will also need to prove himself as a passer so Clemson can’t stack the box and bring extra blitzers every play to eliminate the run game. Against Wake Forest, Syracuse’s passing game consisted mainly of screens and short throws over the middle. Shrader has struggled with deep balls, but may need to hit on one to help keep the rushing and passing attacks balanced.
Stat to know: 54.3%
That’s Uiagalelei’s completion percentage through the six games this season. It’s a steep drop from the 69.2% mark that Lawrence recorded in his final season at Clemson. Uiagalelei has been inconsistent throughout the year — against Georgia Tech he engineered a scoring drive early in the first quarter and later in the fourth quarter, but nothing in between. If he finds success against the Orange on Friday, it could lead to an 0-3 start in conference play for Syracuse.
Player to watch: Justyn Ross, wide receiver
Justyn Ross posted a 1,000-yard receiving season as a freshman in 2018, but he hasn’t been able to match those numbers since. He missed the entirety of the 2020 season due to a spinal condition, but he has already recorded three touchdowns this year. A former five-star recruit, Ross has the talent to expose the weaknesses of Syracuse’s secondary, which is led by Williams and Duce Chestnut, who have each been burned for touchdown passes in man-to-man coverage in recent games.
The post Opponent Preview: Everything to know about unranked Clemson appeared first on The Daily Orange.