No. 3 Clemson lost star freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence to injury late in the second half and nearly gave up first place in the ACC Atlantic. But redshirt freshman Chase Brice entered the game and led the Tigers to a narrow 27-23 win at home one year after Syracuse upset Clemson in a similar situation up in the Carrier Dome.
Brice went 7-for-13 passing for 83 yards, spending most of the second half handing off to Clemson's running backs, the leader of which was a monstrous performance by sophomore Travis Etienne, who topped out at 203 yards rushing from 27 carries with three touchdowns. Brice came up big with a fourth-down completion and a first-down scramble on the final drive, leading to a touchdown that allowed the defense to melt the clock away and seal the win for the Tigers.
"How about Chase Brice? How about that offensive line and that run game? The defense gave them some shots," coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN after the game. "We were telling him he was ready for this, to trust his instincts and stay focused on what he's supposed to do each play and to find joy in the moment."
The Orange offense wasn't very effective in the second half as the Tigers both created turnovers and stepped up with huge plays, like Xavier Thomas' late sack of Eric Dungey, in the fourth quarter.
Clemson's defense STEPPED UP late in the 4th. pic.twitter.com/UglyQwTf4V— ESPN (@espn) September 29, 2018
Clemson staved off an upset against Syracuse, but the loss of Lawrence to injury also revealed how much Clemson would (and already does) miss Kelly Bryant, who was similarly injured in this matchup last year.
Swinney spoke extensively this week about the emotions packed into the decision to sit Bryant, doing so at a time in the year that would also give him the opportunity to redshirt the season and preserve a year of eligibility should he decide to transfer after the fall. Bryant not only responded with an intention to do just that but did so with comments to reporters claiming he felt like the decision was a "slap in the face."
Before the season, Swinney made a point to tell anyone who asked he was comfortable going and competing for a championship with all three of his quarterbacks. Some of that might have been coach-talk for July, but those who covered Brice coming out of high school saw a valuable prospect who brought depth to Clemson's quarterback room.
That depth is being tested now with Bryant gone. When Lawrence was knocked out of the game, Brice's ability to step up and make a tough throw became the measure of success for Clemson's offense. In the third quarter, Syracuse loaded up the line of scrimmage and left its cornerbacks in one-on-one matchups on the outside. Few defenses would consider such a game plan against the likes of Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow and Amari Rodgers, but things were different with Brice under center.
According to Clemson, Bryant is still enrolled at the school. Lawrence might be healthy and ready to get back on the field next week, but if not, there might be an opportunity for the events of the past week to be reversed. Right now, Clemson is not in a position where it can win a national championship without Lawrence. Bryant at least has gotten the Tigers to the playoffs, and having him back in the room would make the chances of a scare like Saturday less likely.
Three things to know moving forward:
Can Kelly Bryant come back to the Tigers? Yes, if he wants to. Swinney told ESPN's Holly Rowe that Bryant would be welcomed back to the team. "Heck yeah," Swinney said. "I love that kid." Since he's still enrolled in classes there's no issues of eligibility, but whether Bryant would want to is another question.
Bryant's disappointment in Lawrence being named starter was evident in his actions and comments earlier this week, so would he want to return to action knowing that he might only be a temporary solution until the freshman returns to full health? There could be an opportunity for Bryant to entrench himself as the starter, regardless of Lawrence's status, with his play on the field. Only time will tell if the events of earlier this week and the Syracuse game have changed the conversation between him and the staff.
Syracuse is a top-tier ACC team in 2018. Don't ignore Syracuse's role in this game and the issues they created for Clemson. The Orange are 4-1 and well on their way to a breakthrough season here in Year 3 for Dino Babers. They've got a feisty defensive line, Eric Dungey is one of the top play-making quarterbacks in the ACC and have already looked the part of contender against the likes of Florida State and Clemson.
The way the schedule sets up, Syracuse could run off a few wins in a row here in October. Clemson now has the head-to-head edge in the ACC Atlantic division race, but it's not crazy to think that the Orange could be ranked heading into its Yankee Stadium game against Notre Dame on Nov. 17.
Clemson's defense, ground game still good enough to win the ACC. Saturday was a big-time test for Clemson's defense, particularly at the second and third levels. After Syracuse had early success the Tigers did a great job of limiting their production late, and mixing up the defense to get stops. The chess match with Babers and his offensive staff going up against Brent Venables had dramatic swings, but Venables seemed to have the last move with those fourth quarter stops.
Swinney told his coaching staff they wanted to be "old school" with Brice in the game. An old school approach of the pounding the ground game and relying on a great defense fits the personnel in place, as long as the Tigers are getting good production from their ground game. Eitenne was great against Syracuse and the offensive line finally got some established an edge and got some movement by the time the game's biggest drives came around in the fourth quarter, but that part of Clemson's offense might need to be its identity with Lawrence's status in doubt.