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Tigers ride Etienne, defense in comeback win against Syracuse

Travis Etienne (9) rushed for over 200 yards on Saturday to secure Clemson’s win over Syracuse

     For much of Saturday afternoon, Clemson football fans were experiencing a bad case of deja vu. On October 13th, 2017 the Syracuse Orangemen handed the Tigers their lone regular season loss in a game where starting quarterback Kelly Bryant was forced to exit with an injury. This year, the injury of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence almost allowed history to repeat itself in Death Valley. Late game heroics and breakout performances allowed the Tigers to flip the script this time around however as they defeated Syracuse 27-23.

     After a whirlwind week for the Tigers with the announcement of Kelly Bryant’s transfer, the “Trevor Lawrence Era” officially began. Lawrence and the offense didn’t get off to the start they were looking for after a botched handoff gave Syracuse the ball just two plays into Clemson’s first drive. Lawrence settled in however leading the Tigers to a go-ahead score before the end of the 1st quarter. Early in the second however, with the Tigers trailing 13-7, Lawrence stumbled and fell forward directly into the path of Syracuse defender Evan Foster. Lawrence took a big hit to the head and did not return to the game despite leaving the field on his own power. With Lawrence gone, a sense of desperation filled Memorial Stadium.

     Had Lawrence suffered an injury a week earlier, Tiger fans would have been significantly less concerned about the state of the team without him. If Lawrence went down, Bryant would have stepped in and ran the offense effectively. But after Bryant’s shocking decision to leave the program earlier this week, the game was in the hands of redshirt freshman Chase Brice. While Brice didn’t exactly fill up the statsheet, going 7-13 for 83 yards and an interception, he did enough to keep the Tigers in the game. From the moment Brice stepped on the field, the Tigers switched to a run-heavy system that incorporated just enough passes to keep the defense honest. The decision to focus on the run game was a blessing in disguise for the Tigers as they torched the Syracuse defense for 198 yards on the ground in the second half alone.

      Clemson running back Travis Etienne was undoubtedly the Tigers’ biggest weapon on Saturday afternoon. The sophomore had a career day as he compiled 203 yards and all three Clemson touchdowns. Etienne consistently found his way to the defense’s second level and bounced off defenders all day long, managing an astounding 7.5 yards per carry. Etienne’s quick and agile running style was supplemented by the power running game of Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice who combined for another 102 yards. Regardless of whether or not Lawrence will be ready to play next weekend against Wake Forest, expect the Tigers to attack opponents on the ground in the coming weeks.

     The Clemson defense was electric again against the Orangemen, especially in the second half. After allowing 16 points and 221 yards in the first half, the Tiger defense allowed just 90 yards and a touchdown in the second half. The only touchdown they allowed came after a muffed punt by Amari Rodgers gave Syracuse the ball at the Clemson ten yard line. Even then, it took a second effort push from Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey on 4th down to get the Orangemen into the endzone. From A.J. Terrell’s interception to Xavier Thomas’ game sealing sack, the defense made big plays throughout the second half.

     The play of the game came on Clemson’s final drive. Down 23-20, the Tigers faced a 4th and 6 from their own 48 yard line. With a conversion, the Tigers had life. With a stop, the Orangemen would hang on to win. With 80,000 Tiger fans holding their breath, Chase Brice connected with Tee Higgins who made a catch in traffic near the sideline for the first down. On the very next play, Brice kept the ball on a quarterback keeper and lowered his shoulder on a defender en route to a seventeen yard run. With Death Valley was as loud as it has been all season, Etienne cruised into the end zone just three plays later with 41 seconds left on the clock.

     When asked about the fourth down conversion after the game, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “No matter what happened on that play, I was proud of my team. A lot of heart… a lot of fight. It’s been a heck of a week, but you saw the heart of our team today.” While Swinney and the team are certainly going to enjoy the win this weekend, there is still some concern about the long-term success of the Tigers if Lawrence misses significant time.

      After the game, Swinney said per, “[Lawrence is] really doing great… he actually wanted to come back in and play. He got banged up and had concussion-like symptoms and you just don’t mess with that”. While this is encouraging news for Clemson, there are rumors about a possible Kelly Bryant return. Even though Bryant announced his transfer, he is still enrolled as a Clemson student and could theoretically come back if he chose to do so. When asked if he’d welcome Bryant back to the team, Swinney said, “Heck yeah. I love that kid”. All eyes will once again be on Bryant and Lawrence this week as Clemson fans await this week’s quarterback depth chart.

     Clemson will travel to North Carolina next week to take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The Demon Deacons are 3-2 this season but should present Clemson with a decent challenge, especially if Lawrence is unable to play. The game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

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