Football

Missed field goal spoils late comeback bid in SU’s 17-14 loss to Clemson

Elizabeth Billman | Senior Staff Photographer

SU turned away from its reliance on the read-option and Garrett Shrader threw a season-high 37 passes.

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On fourth-and-1, with Syracuse down three points and less than 45 seconds remaining, head coach Dino Babers called a timeout to decide what to do. Babers was considering going for the fourth-down conversion — quarterback Garrett Shrader said there was a conversation about that — but said he felt like SU had momentum and should kick to force overtime. The 48-yard attempt was within kicker Andre Szmyt’s range, Babers added.

But his effort was short, and SU fell 17-14 against an unranked Clemson. Babers said he’d never seen a kick like that from the 2018 Lou Groza Award winner, adding that he had a private conversation with Szmyt postgame about the mechanics of the kick but declined to specify further. A screenshot of the replay revealed that Szmyt actually kicked the laces of the ball, perhaps causing the misfire.

“If I knew what the outcome was, I might’ve done something else. I never anticipated that,” Babers said.

For the third straight week, Syracuse (3-4, 0-3 Atlantic Coast) was unable to finish, something players cited as the area they needed to improve after losses to Wake Forest in overtime and Florida State as time expired. SU’s defense held Clemson to three second-half points but struggled to find success through the air. Shrader was met with heavy pressure and contained to just 6 yards rushing after back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. He was 17-of-37, and star running back Sean Tucker topped 100 yards in the first half but was largely bottled up in the second.

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“We have the ball in our hands, we just got to get the ball down, make a play, finish,” Tucker said of SU’s final drive.

The Orange were lucky to even have a chance during the fourth quarter, Shrader said after the game. For most of Friday evening, the pass rush got to him. He scrambled repeatedly, trying to throw under pressure or on the run but with limited success.

The Orange trailed by a touchdown after halftime, and Shrader threw one ball into double coverage trying to target Sharod Johnson in the fourth quarter. The pass was high — Johnson was covered and then penalized for offensive pass interference. Shrader threw another behind a wide-open Courtney Jackson when the receiver was beyond the sticks on third-and-14. It hit Jackson in the fingertips and fell incomplete.

“Offensively, we were very sloppy,” Shrader said. “We’re running the wrong routes, we had some drops, I was missing throws. It was a little bit of a combination of everything.”

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Clemson used SU’s miscues to make it a two-possession game. D.J. Uiagalelei found Beaux Collins in a tight window along the sideline between SU’s safety and defensive back for a 23-yard catch, and though the Tigers’ drive stalled out, its lead was safe — until Trebor Pena’s touchdown.

Under pressure, Shrader hung in the pocket until the last second and unloaded a deep ball while getting drilled into the turf from an unblocked man. SU trailed 17-7 when Pena leaped up and caught Shrader’s ball. The quarterback said Clemson ran a 3-cloud coverage which opened up the seam. Pena read it, and Shrader delivered the 62-yard touchdown pass.

“We were on the same page — that was one of those things where we were on the same page and that’s why it worked out the way it did,” Shrader said. “The touchdown pass today, that’s good and all, but we got to do that more consistently.”

Despite the six-time defending conference champions not scoring more than 21 points against a Football Bowl Subdivision team and ranking 112th of 130 teams in scoring offense heading into the matchup, Babers — and SU’s players — were adamant that Clemson is still the most talented team in the conference. But coming off its bye week, that talent was on display for the Tigers.

“They’ve got about 150 stars over there. They’re a top-ranked recruiting class all the time. We can’t touch them,” Babers said on Monday before the game. “That’s the Clemson Tigers, c’mon!”

Early on, it was self-inflicted wounds that kept the Orange scoreless in the first quarter, the fourth time this season the Orange put up a zero-point first frame. Syracuse drove downfield on its first series that included a third-down conversion where Shrader alluded pressure and shoveled the ball to Chris Elmore to move the chains. The quarterback kept it for a fourth-and-short conversion, but then the drive stalled out when Shrader was called on a facemask penalty that backed SU up 15 yards and led it to punt.

Tucker broke loose on the Orange’s second possession, cutting up the right sideline for a 54-yard gain courtesy of edge blocks from Damien Alford and Elmore. But Shrader forced a throw into the middle — as he was hit — that Clemson defensive back Tyler Venables picked off. SU remains without a red zone passing touchdown this season.

“One of the first drives, the line opens up a hole to Sean, takes it down, we run a little play-action, I throw a pick in the red zone. You can’t do that,” Shrader said.

Clemson went up 7-0 with an acrobatic catch from Joseph Ngata over Duce Chestnut in the back corner of the end zone. Syracuse responded with a lengthy, 91-yard touchdown drive that included back-to-back runs from Tucker. He went left on the first and then when it looked like he’d go left again, he cut up the middle for a 39-yard gain. By halftime, the star SU running back had 132 yards rushing, tying the SU record with his fifth-straight 100-yard game.

But Friday wasn’t the same prolific, dual-threat rushing attack that SU presented against No. 19 Wake Forest, Florida State and Liberty. Shrader threw the ball a season-high 37 times, something Babers attributed to Clemson stacking the box and playing with just one deep safety. Tucker went relatively quiet in the second half, explaining that he was “a little slower in (his) run game.”

When Shrader tried to scramble, he beat one player, at times two, around the edge but often had to throw while taking a hit. Against other opponents this season, Shrader outran the defensive end to the corner and used his legs to get SU upfield. But the Tigers were different because they were athletic enough to make the tackle, Babers said. Shrader was still elusive, slipping away from tackles for big losses, but he didn’t notch a run over 4 yards.

Before halftime, with Clemson running its two-minute drill, the Tigers lined up to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Syracuse 40-yard line. They called timeout, then brought out a strange formation that included bunch sets on either side of the punter, a clear fake. SU left its defense on the field, punter Will Spiers still threw a perfect spiral to Davis Allen for a gain of 17, and the Tigers took a 14-7 halftime lead moments later.

“If our defense couldn’t stop it, our punt return team sure (as) heck wouldn’t have stopped it,” Babers said.

Clemson watched Syracuse’s offense continue to stall as it held onto that lead throughout the third quarter. A nice catch and run where Shrader showed patience and threw across the field to Tucker was negated by a missed Shrader throw over the middle and a failed scramble on third-and-12.

And in the fourth quarter, Syracuse finally showed life, marching downfield to get within field goal range. But the laces were showing, Szmyt hasn’t been consistent this year, and the short kick left SU feeling like it left another opportunity on the table.

“Disappointed is an understatement, but we know that we could have and we feel like we should have beat all three of those teams, especially today,” Shrader said. “There’s no moral victories. We got to get better, period.”







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