SYRACUSE, N.Y. — On the first score of Clemson’s trouncing of Syracuse, Trevor Lawrence baited an All-American safety by faking a bubble screen only to throw a touchdown down the seam. He talked trash to another Syracuse defender as he walked into the end zone on a quarterback keeper. That was Trevor Lawrence, the perfect quarterback providing the Heisman moments the nation expected after his breakout freshman season.
But then came the other Trevor Lawrence, the turnover-plagued quarterback who’s thrown more interceptions in three games than he did all of last season. Clemson coaches thought the receiver could’ve done a better job fighting the ball on the first turnover, a pass which the cornerback tipped up to himself. Lawrence described the second interception — a play where he rolled right only to throw back to his left and at Syracuse defender — as sloppy. Both contributed to why Syracuse was still in the game in the third quarter despite rushing for 14 yards in an eventual 41-6 loss.
“We're 3-0, won big tonight and that's what's most important to me,” Lawrence said. “But definitely want to limit some turnovers. I've had more turnovers than I'd like so far.”
As No. 1 Clemson (3-0, 1-0 ACC) continues to roll teams by multiple touchdowns, it’s been led by a defense which replaced seven starters this season — not the offense, which features Heisman Trophy candidates at running back and quarterback. Lawrence was projected as the future of college football after throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s national title game and entered this year appearing infallible. But three games into his sophomore season, Lawrence has thrown five interceptions and when Syracuse forced Clemson to throw the ball last Saturday night, the offense sputtered.
“He’s not going to be perfect, there's no player on our team that's going to be perfect,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “Maybe the expectation because of how he finished the season last year is for him to be perfect.”
Scott’s not worried about the turnovers because Lawrence is still a second-year player and learning. On Saturday, he saw a different defensive scheme than he saw in previous weeks.
In the first two games, defenses played him differently than Syracuse, Lawrence said. Both Georgia Tech and Texas A&M operated with two-high safeties, which left fewer players near the line of scrimmage, allowing Travis Etienne to run for 258 yards in the first two games.
This past Saturday, Syracuse played with one-high safety, in theory freeing up longer throws for Clemson. But in the second quarter Lawrence completed 5-of-11 passes as the offense fell stale. On one series, Clemson receiver Justyn Ross beat a Syracuse cornerback until a hold by the defender saved a likely touchdown.
When Etienne’s next run went for two yards, the Tigers went back to the long ball. Lawrence twice lofted balls deep down the field, and twice they fell incomplete. The second, an overthrown ball beyond the reach of Ross, marked Lawrence’s fourth straight incompletion.
“We missed a lot of plays tonight, missed some throws,” Lawrence said after the game. “Some balls I feel like we could've come down with. … The big things are happening, we're making big plays. We just have some little details we could get better on.”
Clemson’s offense wants to be explosive, Scott said. The offense has been that with a touchdown of 30 or more yards in each of the Tigers’ first three games, including an 87-yard touchdown against Syracuse on the next offensive series following Lawrence’s first interception.
The interceptions haven’t hurt Clemson yet and the offense’s explosion has come frequent enough that the Tigers are scoring points.
Still, the timing of those interceptions and the field position granted were high-risk situations. Lawrence’s two interceptions on Saturday left Syracuse a combined 12 yards away from the end zone on those two possessions. The Tigers’ defense bailed Lawrence out with an interception and a goal-line stand.
As Clemson rolls into a weak ACC schedule, the turnovers may not matter for awhile. But if the Tigers return to the College Football Playoff and they grant Alabama a first-and-goal opportunity, the result may be different.
“I'm kind of glad that everything hasn't just been perfect,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We've had some challenges, some missed opportunities and things like that and it really just keeps us humble. … Hopefully we're going to be a little more polished football team as we go through the season.”
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