It can be argued that the toughest opponent Clemson has faced over the past two seasons has been a surprise thorn in the side of the Tigers.
In fact, over Clemson’s last 36 games, only two teams can say they sent the defending national champions home with a loss: Alabama in the 2018 Sugar Bowl and division foe Syracuse, which beat them three months earlier.
The Orange were close again last year and had the Tigers dead to rights after Trevor Lawrence was knocked out the game in the second quarter of his first college start with a head injury. Lawrence’s backup, Chase Brice, rallied them as Clemson came back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to win 27–23. Brice led them on a 94-yard, 12-play game-winning drive, capped off by a two-yard touchdown run with 41 seconds left by Travis Etienne, who ran for 203 yards.
Heading into 2019, optimism was high for the Orange, who even received two first-place votes to win the Atlantic Division in the ACC preseason media poll. But a sluggish offensive performance in a 24–0 opening win over Liberty portended a 63–20 blowout loss to Maryland in Week 2, re-setting expectations for this season.
Clemson will now be more than a three-touchdown favorite when the teams square off Saturday night, but there is no doubt this is still a big game, at least to Syracuse. The Carrier Dome will be sold out for a football game for the first time since the 1998 season.
The Tigers opening two games, against Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, have featured their stout defense, which held both opponents to under 300 total yards. Clemson has gotten off to slow starts, making for the possibility of a team to think it has a chance to actually win, but the inevitable happens once the offense gets cranked up.
What’s also evident is that the Tigers have dominated the line of scrimmage, despite losing seven starters from a unit that led the nation in scoring defense. This is especially true on the defensive line, where opponents' run games have been shut off, allowing the front seven to maximum its pass rush and collapse on the short to intermediate passing routes they decide to play zone on third-and-long situations.
Look for defensive coordinator Brent Venables to bring heat on Saturday, especially through the ‘A’ gap, something that worked particularly well against A&M. Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond was sacked twice and threw an interception, but was forced out of the pocket multiple times leading to inaccurate passes or throwing the ball away to avoid big losses.
For Syracuse to pull off the upset, it needs to pressure Lawrence (64%, 436 yards, two TDs, three interceptions) early and often. Because of the skill talent he has around him, especially two 6’4” receivers in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, Lawrence’s athleticism allows him to roll out or escape pressure and find receivers downfield when defensive backs peel off and pay attention to Lawrence instead of staying with their assigned receiver or zone.
After recording eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss in a season opening win against Liberty, the defense barely touched Maryland quarterback Josh Jackson, only sacking him once in last weekend's housing. Senior DEs Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman logged 10 sacks apiece in 2018 and will need to make life difficult for Lawrence if the Orange are to have any hope of slowing Clemson's offensive attack.
Under now graduated signal-caller Eric Dungey, Syracuse had one of the nation’s most prolific offenses last season, being only one of 12 teams to average more than 40 points per game.
The up-tempo, spread offense that had defenses on their heels has been nowhere to be found so far in 2019, especially when it comes to running the ball. The Orange are only averaging 3.59 yards a carry, which is not going to cut it against Clemson. That means the combo of Moe Neal and Abdul Adams need to have moderate success on the early downs to avoid becoming one-dimensional early on.
To accomplish that, the Orange's inexperienced offensive line needs to play better. Quarterback Tommy DeVito was sacked four times against Maryland, and protection broke down right before the two times that he turned the ball over, forcing him to make quick decisions that resulted in a fumble and interception.
Clemson is a big favorite for a reason, but there is also a reason why Syracuse has been able to stay toe-to-toe with the Tigers in each of the last two seasons. The Orange can’t afford to fall behind early and take a possible record crowd out of the game.