The star-studded Clemson offense was expected to shoulder the load early on in the 2019 season as Brent Venables’ defense filled with fresh faces settled in.
Instead, it was the Clemson defense that proved to be the difference in the Tigers’ first road test of the season as Trevor Lawrence and the offense struggled to find their rhythm early.
The top-ranked Tigers (3-0) held Syracuse (1-2) to only 11 first downs and 187 total yards in a 41-6 victory Saturday night at the Carrier Dome, pulling away for a win at the place where they last suffered a regular season loss.
“Anytime you win it’s a great thing, but to go on the road and win, especially a division road win, that’s a huge next step for us,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It starts with our defense. I thought they were amazing.”
Clemson’s front seven, which has six new starters, helped the Tigers record eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. And Venables’ defense bailed Lawrence out twice after he threw interceptions that set up Syracuse inside the Clemson 10.
The first occurrence came early in the third quarter with Clemson leading 17-6. Lawrence was intercepted by Christopher Fredrick, who returned the pick to the Clemson 9, giving Syracuse a first-and-goal.
But on the very next play Mario Goodrich picked off Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito. The Tigers scored three plays later when Lawrence threw a swing pass to Amari Rodgers, who raced 87 yards for a touchdown to give Clemson a 24-6 lead.
“We’re gonna attack from goal line to goal line, and to throw him a screen out there and watch him go for 85 yards is just incredible, especially when he’s just coming off of an ACL,” Swinney said. “Just really proud of him.”
The Clemson offense once again put its defense in a bad spot on its next drive as Lawrence was picked off by Trill Williams, who returned it to the Clemson 3. But the Tigers made a goal line stand, holding Syracuse on fourth-and-goal from the 3 when DeVito was tackled two yards short of the end zone.
“The goal line stands, we had sudden change. They got a pick, we go right back and get a pick... just really proud of the D and how they responded,” Swinney said. “Never allowed them to get any momentum. Obviously there were a couple of chances where they could’ve gotten some momentum, but our defense kind of stuffed it out.”
Clemson put it in cruise control from that point forward on its way to a comfortable victory.
Even with its early struggles, Lawrence finished 22 of 39 passing for 395 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 42 yards and a score.
Lawrence’s favorite two targets were Rodgers and junior Tee Higgins. Rodgers had four catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns, while Higgins caught seven passes for 150 yards.
Running back Travis Etienne finished with 76 yards on 14 carries as the Tigers put up 612 yards of offense.
But the Clemson offense also made its share of mistakes. The Tigers had three three-and-outs in the first half, and Lawrence threw a pair of interceptions in the third quarter that allowed Syracuse to hang around.
“We’re very much a work in progress. It’s a four-quarter game for a reason,” Swinney said. “We missed a lot of plays. There were a bunch of plays out there where we hit it- had a penalty, made a good throw- didn’t make the play, or didn’t hit the right play. Just left a lot.”
Star of the game: Isaiah Simmons lined up at linebacker and safety and made plays at both spots. Simmons finished with a team-high 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Play of the game: Syracuse was still hanging around early in the third quarter and had Clemson’s offense looking out of sync when Rodgers caught a swing pass, broke a tackle and exploded down the sideline for an 87-yard touchdown to all but put the game away.
Stat of the game: 0.4: Syracuse averaged 0.4 yards per carry, totaling 15 rushing yards on 42 attempts.
Brent Venables is underpaid: Clemson’s defensive coordinator is the second-highest paid assistant coach in the country, and he still isn’t paid enough. Week in and week out he comes up with a defensive plan to confuse and frustrate offenses.
Trevor Lawrence is pressing at times: Lawrence threw two interceptions against the Orange and now has five this year. That’s more than he had in 15 games last season.
Clemson owned the line of scrimmage: The Tigers had eight sacks while allowing none.
Who: Charlotte at No. 1 Clemson
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21
Where: Memorial Stadium (Clemson)
TV: ACC Network
CLE—Rodgers 16 pass from Lawrence (Potter kick), 10:29
CLE—Lawrence 1 run (Potter kick), 5:34
SYR—FG Szmyt 29, 12:24
CLE—FG Potter 40, 4:31
SYR—FG Szmyt 23, 2:00
CLE—Rodgers 87 pass from Lawrence (Potter kick), 9:42
CLE—FG Potter 37, 2:24
CLE—Ladson 7 pass from Lawrence (Potter kick), 10:11
CLE—Mellusi 57 run (Potter kick), :48
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Clemson, Etienne 14-76, Mellusi 1-57, Lawrence 4-42, Dixon 6-19, Brice 1-16, Rencher 2-8, Dukes 1-3. Syracuse, A.Adams 14-34, Neal 9-22, Howard 2-1, Pierre 2-0, DeVito 15-(minus 42).
PASSING—Clemson, Lawrence 22-39-2-395, Brice 1-3-0-(minus 4). Syracuse, DeVito 15-27-1-172, Welch 0-2-0-0.
RECEIVING—Clemson, Higgins 7-150, Ross 5-64, Rodgers 4-121, Etienne 3-32, Chase 1-11, Allen 1-10, Ladson 1-7, Rencher 1-(minus 4). Syracuse, Riley 4-22, Neal 2-67, Benson 2-26, Hackett 2-18, T.Jackson 2-16, A.Adams 2-14, Harris 1-9.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Clemson, Potter 33.