SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Needless to say the Clemson offense left much to be desired in Friday night’s 27-24 loss to Syracuse.
An offense that entered the game averaging 471 yards per game — 237.3 yards rushing and 233.7 yards passing — was stymied. The Orange defense held the Tigers’ offense to 317 yards (113 yards rushing and 204 yards passing) on only 57 plays, the fewest number of plays run since the 2014 season (Georgia Tech).
And for the first time in three seasons, the Tigers did something that they had not done — they panicked.
"I think what really happened was we started really panicking,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “Probably trying to do a little too much and then we got out of rhythm and weren't able to really get settled in on the run game.
“We were able to find some decent runs in the second half, but just once we started the self-inflicted wounds in the middle of the first half, we just didn't recover until the second half."
What began with the Syracuse defense showing some different looks in the game than what they had done in previous games spiraled out of control for the Tigers — leading to uncharacteristic mistakes that compounded into a horrific offensive performance on Friday the 13th.
"They started running a lot of zone pressures into our run game, forcing us to throw the ball
to the perimeter,” Elliott said. “When you've got hats to add them up and guys are moving and angling, it's tough to catch all of that movement. We did find a couple of runs early, but then we just started having some mental errors. Trying to get the ball on the perimeter, we have a missed assignment, we don't block it properly and now it's second-and-17.
The Tigers’ seemingly abandoned their rushing attack in the first half and became one dimensional with the passing game in favor of trying to keep up with the rapid scoring of the Syracuse offense.
However, hindsight being 20-20, the decision to try to hit on some “explosive” plays would ultimately result in the Tigers giving the ball right back to the Syracuse offense and putting an already tired defense back on the field.
"Anytime you can run the football, definitely, we would have loved to stick with the run. Just the flow of the game, the way things were going, we abandoned it a little bit early,” Elliott said. “Again, we were just trying to help the defense, help the team by having some explosive plays and put some points on the board. Then we just had some miscues.
“We had a couple of dropped balls, actually we had a screen to Tavien (Feaster) that looked like it was hatted-up pretty good. We had a big ball across the middle that Deon (Cain) was unable to come down with. So, in that situation, I think we started pressing in the end of the first half.”
The pressing continued into the second half for the Tigers, even after finding some success in the running game the Tigers were unable to capture the momentum back from the Orange — mainly on third down.
The Tigers were 2-of-11 on the night on third downs, a far cry from the 48.9-percent (11th best in the nation) that they entered the game averaging.
“Disappointed with third down, I feel like I've got to do a better job of making sure that I can put our guys in a position to be successful on third down, that's the worst we've been all season,” Elliott said.
Even though starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, who left the game with 59 seconds to play in the first half after suffering a concussion, was less than 100 percent and unable to use his legs the way he would have liked, as he was still nursing an injured ankle, for Elliott and the rest of the Tigers that is not an excuse they are willing to entertain.
"We were trying to move the pocket with him and you could tell that he wasn't quite himself out there,” Elliott said. “There were a couple of third downs where Kelly knows that if his ankle isn't bothering him, he gets those. And we get into some shorter situations where we weren't able to convert, so obviously any time you have his ability to run it helps. But that's not an excuse. Guys needed to pick up the load."