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ALOST Game of the Week: No. 2 Clemson at Syracuse

Robert Cole/ALOST

 

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

 

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — While the eyes of Syracuse head coach Dino Babers saw the collective look he needed to see from his players to indicate a program-shaping victory was nigh, the eyes of the Clemson Tigers players, specifically late in the second quarter of Friday night’s contest, followed the embodiment of their chances at a repeat national championship leave the field with the help of trainers around each arm – injured, concussed, and taking with him into the locker room the spark his team’s offense could not generate after his departure.

After a couple of close calls at landmark victories in 2017, the Orange saved their breakout party for the Friday night spotlight, marching up and down the vaunted Clemson defense all game long to post a 27-24 triumph over the defending national champions, sending the majority of the 42,475 fans into delirium last seen regularly in the Salt City during the days of Donovan McNabb in the mid-1990s or the perennial national championship caliber teams of legendary coach Dick MacPherson in the late ’80s.

“The thing about the locker room is that you get to look into those young people’s eyes,” said a passionate Babers in the postgame press conference. “And when you’re looking at them, and they’re looking back, there are certain things you know they will never forget. How would you like to do something positive that somebody would never forget for the rest of their lives?”

“I’ve seen more days than I’m going to see, and to know I put a mark in time and in 124 people’s lives,” Babers continued. “They’re going to live a heck of a lot longer than me, I can promise you that, so that’s really special.”

The successes of the squads quarterbacked by McNabb and the teams led by Coach Mac turned the Dome into the place affectionately known as “The Loud House,” inarguably one of the toughest places to come away with a victory on one’s travels. The ennui that has engulfed the program since the end of the Paul Pasqualoni era, the coach who led Syracuse to its last major bowl after the 1998 season, turned the domed edifice more into quiet time on The Hill. To the currentl players on the roster, those days of greatness are just memories, told to them by former players who visit the campus or seen in uploaded YouTube clips.

Memories that were revived during tonight’s game, and the fans, desperate to yell their lungs out for a consistent winner, responded in kind.

“How about the fans tonight?,” pondered Babers. “Are you kidding me? We have a dome. No one else does. We’re loud. We’re crazy up here, and that’s the atmosphere it should be every time you come to the Carrier Dome. It should be a very difficult place to play.”

It certainly was difficult for the Tigers, and a number of players had experienced that in the Salt City just two years ago, when a top-ranked Clemson team struggled all game before pulling out a 10-point win. There was to be no repeat tonight, with Clemson’s offense being held to 317 total yards – 154 yards below its season average – while the Orange controlled the ball and the clock all game long.

To his credit, and to the credit of his team’s opponent and supporters, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney was effusive in his praise for the Orange after Clemson’s first loss since last November.

“Obviously, very disappointed,” said Swinney outside of the Clemson locker room after the game. “A lot of pain in our locker room. This is a story about Syracuse. This ain’t about Clemson. This is about Syracuse. They outplayed us, out-coached us. 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. The story of the night is Syracuse. Outplayed us, out-coached us. Incredibly disappointed. We’ve got to move forward.”

While complimentary of the Orange, it would not be completely fair to tell the complete story of tonight’s game without talking a little bit about the Tigers, specifically the injury to their signal-caller, Heisman Trophy candidate Kelly Bryant, who had to be removed from the game with a concussion after being driven into the ground on a tackle by Syracuse defensive tackle Chris Slayton late in the second quarter. Bryant, who came into the contest nursing a sore ankle, had his head hit off the Carrier Dome turf and was down on the ground for almost five minutes before being helped up and into the locker room by trainers.

Would Bryant’s presence have made a difference? One would believe so, especially given the dual-threat ability he had already shown in the Tigers’ wins against the likes of Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech. However, the numbers the Tigers’ offense had put up before his absence tonight were eerily similar to the statistics put after after Zerrick Cooper came on to replace him; In 28 plays with Bryant under center, Clemson gained 155 yards. In the 27 plays with Cooper, the Tigers gained 162 yards.

Swinney pointed to many other factors outside of quarterback play that led to the Tigers demise tonight.

“There’s a lot we’re going to talk about, a lot we’ve got to fix, a lot of mistakes, a bunch of penalties, third down we couldn’t stop them and we couldn’t stay on the field on third down,” Swinney said. “We just didn’t do the things you’ve got to do to win games. That’s my responsibility. There’s plenty to correct and all of that, but it starts with me and I didn’t have them ready to play. That’s just where it is.”

“At the same time, I told them in the locker room, my love for them is not conditional. It is completely unconditional. It’s not based on the scoreboard. These guys lay it on the line every single week. We came up short.”

To be more accurate, Syracuse came up big. Junior quarterback Eric Dungey, quickly emerging into one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in college football, had a standout performance against a defense that had only allowed 11 points per game coming into it. Dungey was 20-for-32 for 278 yards with three touchdown passes and was turnover-free. He also ran for 61 yards, with a couple of big gains on the ground coming at a crucial juncture.

It’s Dungey biggest win as a collegiate quarterback, but, like the rest of his team as well as the Syracuse community who once knew how great this program was, Dungey is looking for more.

“For me, it’s just a win,” said Dungey. “All that is awesome, but like Coach Babers said, he expects us to win. At the end of the day, we beat the number two team in the country, but that’s what he expects from us and what we expect from one another. We still have five games left in the season, so we need to get to work.”

Syracuse middle linebacker Zaire Franklin led the defensive effort in shutting down the high-scoring Tigers, holding the offense to just two touchdowns. (Clemson’s third touchdown came on a fumble return of a Syracuse turnover on offense.) For Franklin, as well as the rest of the seniors on the roster, experiencing the plight on the field in the years leading up to 2017 was almost too much to bear – and what makes a night like tonight feel like more than just one win in a long season.

[Teammate Parris Bennett] and I were saying that, after everything we have been through, we have seen the lowest of the lows,” said Franklin. “We lost eight in a row and everyone was leaving. I had doubts about the future of the program, as did everyone. Coach Babers has done so much for us. He has taught us what it means to be a family, and what it means to be a man. I’m glad that the seniors get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

Years after tonight’s result, Babers hopes this win becomes the stuff of legend, a game whose story is told over and over to the point where future generations get sick of hearing it. Babers means that.

“It’s something that [our seniors] will tell their sons and their daughters, and then they’ll tell their grandsons and granddaughters,” said Babers. “It will be one of those deals when it’s, ‘No, grandpa, not the story about how you beat Clemson at the Loud House.’ And, they’ll have to sit there and listen to it again.”

If the look in the eyes of Babers and Syracuse football continues to be one where winning becomes habitual and they parlay it into gridiron success once more, the stories that will be told, from the Varsity Pizza establishment near Marshall Street to downtown, will not cease anytime soon.

*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from tonight’s game, with all photos taken by our senior photographer, Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are currently 36 pictures in the gallery.

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