Clemson (4-2, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), coming off a bye week, played its first game as a team not ranked by the AP since Nov. 22, 2014, a 28-0 win against Georgia State, and held on for the victory after Syracuse place-kicker Andre Szymt missed a 48-yard field goal attempt with 38 seconds left.
“Until our offense grows up a little bit. We’ve got to find a way to win,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Four one-possession games in a row, if that’s who we are, that’s who we are. We’re just going to keep grinding.”
Syracuse (3-4, 0-3) is in the same boat, but the Orange aren’t winning. They came into the game after consecutive ACC losses to Florida State and then-No. 19 Wake Forest that were decided on the final play of each game, and that seemed a possibility again on a night Orange tailback Sean Tucker continued his amazing season with 157 yards rushing on 22 carries.
“This will take a little time to get over,” said Orange coach Dino Babers, who opted for the field goal try on a fourth-and-1 play. “The way these guys are fighting. They’re fighting hard. It’s exciting and it’s disappointing at the same time.”
Clemson had only surrendered five offensive touchdowns this season, the second fewest in the country. Syracuse got one in the second quarter and a stunner midway through the fourth when Garrett Shrader hit Trebor Pena for a 62-yard score just over two minutes after B.T. Potter’s 40-yard field goal had given the Tigers a seemingly insurmountable 17-7 lead.
“Disappointed is an understatement,” said Shrader, who rarely found room to showcase his rushing talent. “We know that we could have and we feel like we should have beat all three of those teams, especially today. We’re right there, even today with as bad as we played on offense.”
Uiagalelei, who finished 21 of 34 passing, guided Clemson on a 13-play, 58-yard scoring drive that broke a 7-7 tie with time winding down in the second quarter. The drive was kept alive by a fake punt on a fourth-ald-5 gamble when punter Will Spiers hit a 17-yard pass to Davis Allen. Uiagalelei hit an 11-yarder on the left side to Ajou Ajou to the Syracuse 13 and a 6-yarder over the middle to Justyn Ross to set up Pace’s 2-yard touchdown run with nine seconds left for a 14-7 lead.
Clemson took a 7-0 lead six minutes into the second quarter helped by a personal foul called against Syracuse linebacker Mikel Jones. Uiagalelei tacked on a 10-yard run, then hit Joseph Ngata in the right corner of the end zone. Ngata caught the ball falling backwards with one foot inside the line.
Syracuse tied it at 7-all just over three minutes later behind Tucker, who burst through a big hole and sprinted down the left side before being brought down at the 2 after a 39-yard gain. At that point, Clemson had run 23 plays for 95 yards and Tucker had nine carries for 126. Shrader scored untouched on the next play, just the second rushing touchdown allowed this season by the Tigers.
Tucker entered the game ranked second nationally with 791 rushing yards, second with 131.8 yards per game and was the national leader in all-purpose yards (165.83). He needs 52 yards to reach 1,000. The last Syracuse tailback to reach the 1,000-yard mark was Jerome Smith, who ran for 1,254 yards in 2012.
Syracuse squandered the only scoring threat in the first quarter after Tucker broke a 54-yard run down the right side to the Clemson 19. After Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called a timeout, Shrader was intercepted by Tyler Venables just inside the 10-yard line on the next play. It was the only turnover of the game.
Szymt became the program’s all-time leading scorer with his extra point after the Orange’s first touchdown. It gave him 335 points, one more than Nate Trout’s mark, set in 1999.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little, one of Syracuse’s greatest tailbacks, was honored at halftime as part of Floyd Little Life and Legacy Day. Little was a three-time All-American in the mid-1960s and went on to play nine seasons for the Denver Broncos. He died on New Year’s Day of cancer.
Clemson: The Tigers entered the game just outside the AP Top 25 with the 27th most votes. They must jump No. 16 Wake Forest and No. 22 North Carolina State, both undefeated in ACC play, if they hope to try for a seventh straight league championship. To do that, the offense will have to get better. The Tigers entered the game averaging just over 21 points.
Syracuse: Tucker again proved that he’s a special back and Shrader got hot late but still finished only 17 of 37 for 191 yards passing. Shrader only rushed for six yards on seven carries as Clemson cramped his style after he put up monster numbers the previous two games (178, 137).
The Orange could do nothing offensively on a third-quarter possession that started near midfield and scored on big plays, not sustained drives.
Clemson travels to Pittsburgh on Oct. 23.
Syracuse is at Virginia Tech on Oct. 23.