SYRACUSE, N.Y. — For the second game in a row the second-ranked Clemson Tigers (6-1, 4-1 ACC) needed to turn to the freshman Zerrick Cooper after starting quarterback Kelly Bryant suffered a concussion with 59 seconds to play in the first half of Friday’s game against the Syracuse Orange (4-3, 2-1 ACC).
But unlike last week’s game, the Tigers were unable to overcome the loss of their quarterback as the Orange ended Clemson’s perfect season by a final score of 27-24.
"There's a lot of pain in our locker room, but listen this is a story about Syracuse. This ain't about Clemson, this is about Syracuse,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “They outplayed us, outcoached us and give them a ton of credit. This was a football game that they just flat out wanted more than we did -- and that's 100-percent on me.
"We just didn't do the things that you've got to do to win the game and that's my responsibility. There's plenty to correct and all of that, but it starts with being ready to play. So that's just where it is."
Syracuse and Clemson started off the game red hot as both teams needed a combined 4:19 off the clock to score in a first quarter that featured 21 combined points and 274 combined yards.
The Orange gashed the Tigers’ defense behind the running of quarterback Eric Dungy on their opening drive that put the Orange up 7-0. However, the Tigers responded quickly as Tavien Feaster’s 37-yard touchdown run capped a three-play, 1:03 drive that tied the game 7-7.
The Tiger defense held Syracuse to minus-3 yards on their next possession but was unable to convert a Syracuse punt into points. After the Tigers moved the ball to the Syracuse 17-yard line, Tiger kicker Alex Spence missed a 35-yard field goal.
Syracuse needed only two plays and 39 seconds to make the Tigers pay as Dungy found Ervin Phillips wide open for a 66-yard touchdown pass that gave Syracuse a 14-7 lead.
After both teams traded punts on their next possessions, the Tigers got the spark they needed — not on offense, but on defense. Clemson safety Tanner Muse recovered a Syracuse fumble on third-and-31 and returned the recovery 63 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 14-14.
The Orange ended the first half with a 17-14 lead after a Cole Murphy field goal capped a 12-play, 57-yard drive.
With 59 seconds to play in the first half and Clemson trailing Syracuse 17-14, quarterback Bryant was knocked out of the game after being slammed to the turf.
Bryant suffered a concussion on the play and was immediately taken to Clemson locker room for evaluation. Bryant entered the game nursing a sprained ankle that was suffered in last week’s 28-14 victory over Wake Forest.
"He was ready to go - -he kind of tweaked on one play, a couple of plays early and then he got a concussion. He got slammed into the ground,” Swinney said. “He put his heart into getting ready and then I hate that he got hurt. I'm glad that we got an open date."
After both teams exchanged punts to open the second half, the Tigers tied the game at 17-17 after a 30-yard Alex Spence field goal finished off a seven-play, 29-yard drive. But Syracuse answered, this time needing only four plays to cover 82 yards before Dungy found Steve Ishmael from 30 yards out — as the Orange took the lead back 24-17.
The Tigers found the end zone for the first time since the first quarter on their next possession as true freshman running back Travis Etienne took a handoff from Cooper 52 yards for his sixth touchdown of the season. That tied the game 24-24.
Syracuse regained the lead on the following possession — going 64 yards on six plays that ended with a 30-yard field goal by Murphy, giving the Orange a 27-24 lead that they held for the remainder of the game.
"This one's gonna hurt -- a lot of pain for a couple of days here,” Swinney said. “Pain is a part of your journey, unfortunately. You win with class, you lose with class and so we've got to go back to the drawing board."
Even with the loss, Swinney believes that every goal is still within reach for his Tigers — save one.
"We'll give the players a couple of days off and then get ready for Georgia Tech because that's the biggest one,” Swinney said. “This one's behind us and there ain't nothing we can fix now. All we can do is learn from it, grow from it, get better from it and the only thing off the table for this team is we're not going to be 12-0 -- that's for sure. That's not going to happen, but other than that, there's really nothing else that we still can't strive for."
WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE TIGERS: Nothing
Clemson looked lost from the opening snap and was never in the game. The Tigers were dominated offensively and defensively — scoring only 17 points on offense.
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE TIGERS: Defense
The Tigers’ defense, which entered the game as one of the best in the nation, was pushed around and physically beaten from the opening snap of the game. The Syracuse offense amassed 27 points and 447 total yards on the Tigers.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: Hunter Renfrow
The wide receiver finished the game with 64 receiving yards on five catches for an average of 12.8 yards per reception, with a long of 15 yards.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: Kendall Joseph
The Tiger linebacker finished the game with a team-high 12 tackles, including six solo tackles
STAT OF THE GAME: 11 for 119
The Tigers amassed 11 penalties for 119 yards for the game—a multitude of which came on costly pass interferences.
UP NEXT: The Clemson Tigers will take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Oct. 28 at Death Valley, following their bye week. The game against the Yellow Jackets will be the Tigers’ annual breast cancer awareness game.