Quarterback Kelly Bryant, who came in hobbled with an ankle injury suffered the week before vs. Wake Forest, was knocked out near the end of the first half after he was slammed to the Carrier Dome turf by Chris Slayton.
Backup Zerrick Cooper couldn’t get the Tigers going in relief (hitting on 10 of 14 attempts for 88 yards) and the only points Clemson delivered minus Bryant came on an Alex Spence field goal and Travis Etienne’s 52-yard field goal.
Oddly, true freshman Hunter Johnson — a five-star recruit — was 5 for 5 with a TD pass against the Demon Deacons, but didn’t get into this game.
The health of Bryant is going to be a major storyline to monitor going forward.
Meanwhile, the defense did itself no favors with penalties, including two on back-to-back third downs — a pass interference call on Trayvon Mullen on 3rd and 9 and a Austin Bryant offsides flag on 3rd and 7 — on a drive that would end with Cole Murphy giving the Orange the night’s final points on 30-yard field goal with 9:41 to play.
But let’s give credit to Syracuse. Babers has brought unquestioned energy and a change in scheme and culture to the Orange, and after missing out on a bowl game last season at 4-8 (which included being blanked by Clemson 54-0) he has something truly tangible to show the program’s progress.
At 4-3 with No. 11 Miami, Florida State, Wake Forest, Louisville and Boston College, the postseason is obtainable but not guaranteed. However, the second-year coach has delivered Syracuse’s first victory over a team ranked in the top two of the AP Top 25 since Sept. 28, 1984 vs. then-No. 1 Nebraska.
That’s a breakthrough … one that for Clemson comes with a dose of harsh reality.
Everything now rides on Nov. 4’s trip to No. 20 NC State. Granted, there’s a date with Georgia Tech in between on Oct. 28, but that Atlantic Division clash has now become the ACC’s Game of the Year.
No. 11 Miami remains unbeaten — it will face the Yellow Jackets on Saturday — and got over a massive hurdle in ending a seven-game skid vs. Florida State already. But minus running back Mark Walton, the Hurricanes are a mystery despite their spot in the rankings.
The ACC’s best bet at a return to the playoff would seem to rest with that showdown in Raleigh, and now thanks to Syracuse, the stakes just got that much higher.
Clemson has been here before, but a year ago, Dabo Swinney had the leadership of Deshaun Watson to lean on. He had a defense with veterans like Ben Boulware to count on to revive a season.
This time around, the talent is unquestioned. But can the Tigers pull that same magic after getting caught in a trap for the second year in a row?
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.
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