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Road to recovery: Clemson falls to No. 25

Clemson+linebacker+Jeremiah+Trotter+Jr.+takes+down+Duke+running+back+Jaquez+Moore.+Trotter+one+of+the+few+bright+spots+in+an+otherwise+poor+loss+against+the+Blue+Devils+on+Sept.+4%2C+2023.
Katie Bradham
Clemson linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. takes down Duke running back Jaquez Moore. Trotter one of the few bright spots in an otherwise poor loss against the Blue Devils on Sept. 4, 2023.

There was a possibility of an upset when Clemson traveled to meet Duke on Monday, but no one could have predicted that the Blue Devils would win 28-7.

Now, questions surround how the 2023 season will play out, considering the Tigers have now lost three of their last four games dating back to last season. When Clemson rolled into Durham, North Carolina, it was ranked No. 9 in the nation. When the team woke the next morning, that ranking had fallen to No. 25.

The 16-spot slide came after Clemson’s two red-zone fumbles, two blocked field goal attempts and a host of costly slip-ups.

“It’s the weirdest game I’ve ever been a part of. I mean I’ve been beat, I’ve had my butt whooped, but I can honestly say that was the strangest game I have ever been a part of,” head coach Dabo Swinney said.

None of the problems seen on the field, Swinney admitted, were visible in practice over the weeks leading up to the game.
Dropped balls, muffed kicks and missed tackles plagued the team through all four quarters. Each time the Tigers appeared to gain momentum, an avoidable error ended their drive without points.

“We had plenty of opportunities to go get control of the game and go win the game, but we just couldn’t get out of our own way,” Swinney added.

Looking ahead, the Tigers have a long road of ranked opponents. No. 4 Florida State comes to town on Sept. 23, and although Clemson has won the last seven meetings, the Seminoles just defeated an LSU team that was ranked No. 5 at the time.

In November, No. 10 Notre Dame will travel to Death Valley having defeated the Tigers 35-14 last season. Two weeks later, the No. 17 North Carolina Tar Heels will come into town for a rematch of the 2022 ACC Championship game, which Clemson won 39-10.

Where do the Tigers go from here to keep their season alive? Back to the drawing board, it appears.

“You go back to work, that’s how you move on,” Swinney said. “That’s what football teaches you. When you get knocked down you get back up and that’s what we gotta do. The only thing we know we can’t do is be undefeated.”

Although some may be quick to point fingers, Swinney is adamant that the Tigers are not a bad team — they are a good team who made far too many costly mistakes.

“The good news is, if there is any good news, you didn’t see a horrible football team out there,” Swinney said. “You saw a bad result. But you didn’t see a bad football team that can’t play the game.”

Speaking to his belief in the team, Swinney listed relevant team statistics — quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 27 of 43 passes for 209 yards, the team put up 422 total offensive yards and outdid Duke 29-17 on first downs. Moving forward, the focus shifts toward cleaning up fixable errors.

Clemson’s defense has been consistent the last several years, often keeping the Tigers in the game when they struggled to move the ball. Clemson held the Blue Devils to six points in the first half but tired in the second when Leonard scored a 44-yard touchdown, breaking a tackle in the backfield.

From there, red-zone turnovers and dropped balls halted the progress that the defense had fought to maintain, and Duke ran away with the score to tally 15 points in the final quarter.

To keep the defense alive, the offense must capitalize on the opportunities set up for them. To keep the offense alive, the defense must make those critical stops both upfront and downfield.

Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who led with nine total tackles (1.5 for loss) on Monday, understands how the team must execute moving forward.

“I mean, we just got to watch the film, get back to it on defense and make sure that we get the ball back to the offense in those critical scenarios,” he said. “Get off the field quick, three-and-outs, just make sure we just watch the film and get better from it.”

“So, we got to get another stop then we got to get another stop. I mean, I love playing defense, we got to do what we got to do to help our team win and help get the offense the ball back,” he added.

Although the final score wasn’t what the team hoped for, morale among leadership remains high.

Klubnik is insistent that doubt only sets the stage for a great comeback.

“This is just going to be such a sweet story,” he said. “That’s just the dream that I have, and the dream that our team has is to respond. That’s a decision we’ve got to make. Are we going to respond or are we going to let this linger? Ultimately our goal is to play in 15 games and finish 14-1. We can’t go undefeated now, but there’s a lot of games left.”

Clemson looks to bounce back this weekend when it hosts Charleston Southern on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.

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Grace O'Donnell, Sports Editor
Katie Bradham, Senior Videographer
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