SYRACUSE, N.Y. — One way to look at it: the spoils of reaching No. 1 and the euphoria of a national spotlight have been shot down with the cold reality Clemson is mortal, forcefully grabbing the Tigers’ attention.
A contrasting view: struggles at a three-win team with a coach on the hot seat? A caution sign, since Syracuse should not be as tough as teams the Tigers will play in December and possibly January.
Call it for a moment what it is, a 37-27 win for No. 1 Clemson, sweating out a road game in which the Tigers (10-0, 7-0 ACC) entered a 30-point favorite but donated three turnovers to their hosts.
“It’s not a beauty pageant,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “If it was, then maybe it was ugly to some people and we might have been voted down. But it’s a football game, and you need one more point than the opponent.”
Here is what the Tigers earned Saturday: their fifth straight season with double-digit victories (a program record), their sixth straight game with at least 500 yards of total offense (a program record), their seventh conference victory, for the third time in four years (the program’s only pre-2012 ACC 7-win year was 1983) and their 37th consecutive win over an unranked opponent (trailing only Alabama.)
Here is how the Tigers dodged calamity, in four words: Deshaun Watson and Greg Huegel.
The Carrier Dome is an intimate space, meaning when 36,736 fans cram alongside each other — including a healthy dose of local and traveling Clemson fans who gnawed at their fingernails until the sweet relief of a final score — it can get loud.
Yet Watson never flinched. Gracing this week’s cover of Sports Illustrated in a Heisman Trophy pose, the sophomore quarterback stiff-armed the magazine’s famous jinx by completing 34-of-47 passes for 360 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, plus running for 101 yards and a bulldozing 3-yard score on 13 attempts.
“I’m always comfortable with taking control and leading guys,” Watson said. “It’s always good to score and be able to challenge the other team to score twice.”
And Huegel never flinched. An unknown walk-on until impressive work in fall camp this past August, Huegel has connected on 15-of-15 field-goal attempts in ACC games, including three kicks of 38, 24 and 42 yards on Saturday that amounted to just about the margin of victory in a hairy affair.
With 6:58 remaining and the Tigers leading by seven, Huegel lined up for just his fifth attempt of 40 yards are more. One problem: the Tigers didn’t have enough men on the line, so holder Seth Ryan (the son of Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, who was in attendance wearing a purple Clemson hoodie) alertly waved lineman Jay Guillermo from the sideline into the formation.
With just three seconds left on the playclock, Ryan handled the high snap from Jim Brown (who was a game captain Saturday, chosen by Swinney on the campus where the famous fullback Jim Brown played college ball), and Huegel coolly sent the 42-yard attempt through for three crucial insurance points — and neither team scored again.
“Normally we get out there and I have plenty of time, but in that situation, if I waited for him to get out there to line up, I wouldn’t have had any time,” Huegel said. “On that one, I just had to trust my guys to block for me, trust the snap and the hold, and I didn’t have to worry about that.”
Wide receiver Charone Peake had a career-high 120 yards, including a 64-yard reception on the first play from scrimmage and a 4-yard touchdown on Watson’s back-shoulder fade throw.
On the other hand, Syracuse rumbled for 242 rushing yards, the most gained by the Orange or allowed by the Tigers this season. Junior college transfer quarterback Zack Mahoney, who has seen limited action this year, picked apart Clemson for 76 yards and two scores, while tailbacks George Morris II (80 yards, 14 carries) and Jordan Fredericks (47 yards, five carries) each ripped off long runs — a 51-yarder for Morris, a 42-yarder for Fredericks, each resulting in scoring drives.
“I obviously did a terrible job getting our guys ready,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We worked hard on (the option) ... obviously whatever we had ready wasn’t good.”
Tailback Wayne Gallman scored from 11 yards out in the first minute of the game, and after a Syracuse fumble Watson carried multiple Orange defenders into the end zone in the second minute, for a quick 14-0 lead. But Syracuse outscored Clemson 27-23 in the final 58 minutes of the game; however, the Orange never led and only had one second-half possession with less than a 10-point deficit.
“I never doubt myself or have disbelief in the team. “We always believe we’re going to win,” Watson said. “We’re not perfect, and no team is perfect.”
The Orange (3-7, 1-5) dropped its seventh consecutive contest, but gave a few top teams trouble on its home field this year. LSU won by 10 points and Pittsburgh by three points in previous visits to the Carrier Dome.
“You can’t spot the No. 1 team in the country 14 points in the first two minutes of the game, and we were disappointed with that,” Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. “Once we washed that off of ourselves, I thought our team played extremely hard.”
The Tigers host Wake Forest (3-7, 1-6) next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium, going for their first eight-win ACC season in school history.