SYRACUSE — If there was one area that the Tigers knew would carry the team into a 12th straight win, the defense was it Friday night at Syracuse.
The Clemson defense had been as good as advertised in the preseason through the first six games of 2017, so there was little reason to think it would not walk into the Carrier Dome and once again impose its will on a Syracuse Orange team that was no match, on paper, for the mighty Tigers.
But there is one thing the Orange had in their favor — the game is not played on paper. It is played on the field. On Friday night, Syracuse came ready to play and Clemson did not.
"Well obviously we didn't have them ready to play. Syracuse came out ready to play and played a heck of a game,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They coached them up, had them ready and we didn't.”
The Tiger defensive unit, which had been one of the best in the nation in terms of avoiding penalties, was one of the worst in the loss.
The defense accounted for eight accepted penalties, nine in total, of the Tigers’ season-high 11 penalties in the game. It is the lack of discipline that has Venables believing this will not be the Tigers’ only loss of the season if they do not correct the little things.
“We lacked discipline from the get go,” Venables said. “We had three personal fouls, PIs (pass interference) all over the place, offsides. We can't do the little things right before the ball's even snapped; we can't play within the rules. This won't be the last loss that we have this year."
During Syracuse’s second-to-last drive, which ultimately led to the game-winning field goal, the Tigers gave up two first downs on penalties — the first being a pass interference on third-and-9 and the second coming on an offsides penalty on third-and-7, which moved the ball forward 5 yards and ultimately gave the Orange two chances to gain a first down.
"Those are layups man. When you're not doing the little things right, trying to do too much, bad stuff’s going to happen,” Venables said. “Anybody, scout team, Syracuse, the 49ers, anybody's going to take advantage of you when you're not doing the little things right. We did a poor job tackling, poor job putting guys where they belong … just did a poor job of getting them ready and preparing them.
“We just played with no discipline. Every time we tried to get back in the game, we would line up offside or get a PI or hit the quarterback out of bounds. It's all the little stuff that you just can't do and play average football, let alone good football -- good enough to win."
Even with the loss, all of the Tigers’ preseason goals, including a return trip to the playoffs, are still attainable. But if the team wants a chance to defend the national championship, it must first correct a lot of mistakes — and do some soul searching.
"Everything is still sitting in front of us. But we've got to correct a lot of little stuff,” Venables said. “What led to this and why are we doing a lot of the little things wrong? We've got to get those things corrected and put them in a better position to have success. A year ago, we shut them out and this year we couldn't stop them, so a tale of two years and we've just got a lot to do.
"We've got to coach them better, gotta play with more discipline -- we did all the little things wrong tonight and that starts with us as coaches."
Clemson has a bye week before facing Georgia Tech on Oct. 28.