The No. 2 Clemson Tigers cruised to a 54-0 victory over the Syracuse Orange at home on Saturday to maintain their unbeaten record (9-0).
Despite his team’s dominant performance, Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson did little to help his Heisman Trophy candidacy. The junior finished 13-of-16 through the air for 169 yards and two touchdowns in a little less than a half of action. He also ran for 39 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
While few were predicting an upset, Clemson won its last two games against North Carolina State and Florida State by single digits. Syracuse, meanwhile, had a week off to prepare for Saturday’s matchup, and the Orange showed in their upset of Virginia Tech that they’re dangerous if taken lightly.
Clemson, however, wasn’t suffering any sort of hangover following its big victory over the Seminoles on Oct. 29. The Tigers scored 30 unanswered points on Syracuse in the first half.
Greg Huegel opened the scoring with a 22-yard field goal at the 9:26 mark of the first quarter, and Watson ran the ball in from a yard out to put the Tigers ahead 10-0. Clemson Football noted how hot starts have been a strength for the team in 2016:
Clemson has now outscored opponents 96-6 in the first quarter this year… ?? pic.twitter.com/JE3zlMPa3j
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 5, 2016
Clemson piled on the pressure with three touchdown passes in the second quarter to take a commanding lead.
Watson hooked up with sophomore wideout Deon Cain on a 65-yard touchdown reception with 14:11 left before halftime. The ACC Digital Network shared a replay of Clemson’s quick scoring drive:
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 5, 2016
According to ESPN.com’s David Hale, Cain has been effective on throws farther down the field:
Deon Cain on throws of 20+ air yards this season: 8-of-14 for 279 yards and 5 TDs. Pretty good. #Clemson
— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) November 5, 2016
Watson recorded his third touchdown of the game after finding Mike Williams on a 14-yard pass to make it a 23-0 game with 7:16 remaining in the half. CBSSports.com’s Dane Brugler is a big fan of the junior wide receiver:
The body control, reflexes and catch radius of #Clemson WR Mike Williams (6-3, 225) are truly impressive. He has NFL WR1 skills.
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) November 5, 2016
Putting a small damper on the Tigers’ offensive explosion, Watson exited with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. Clemson, however, alleviated the fears of Tigers fans when it announced in the third quarter Watson had suffered a bruised shoulder. The team added he was healthy enough to return to the game but would remain on the sideline.
Senior quarterback Nick Schuessler made Clemson’s decision a little easier. Schuessler hit senior tight end Jordan Leggett for a 24-yard gain on his second throw of the game, and two plays later, he gave the Tigers a 30-0 advantage following a five-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout Artavis Scott with 1:27 left in the half.
In his brief time on the field in the second quarter, Schuessler nearly equaled the offensive output of the entire Syracuse offense, according to Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courier:
Nick Schuessler has 84 yards. Syracuse has 111. https://t.co/9Ff0Wd5gt2
— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) November 5, 2016
The Tigers weren’t the only team without their starting quarterback. The Orange’s leading passer, sophomore Eric Dungey, took a big hit in the first quarter and didn’t return. According to Syracuse.com’s Stephen Bailey, Dungey was wearing street clothes on the sideline near the end of the first half.
The Daily Orange‘s Paul Schwedelson shared a shot from photographer Jes Sheldon of the tackle that knocked Dungey out of Saturday’s loss:
— Paul Schwedelson (@pschweds) November 5, 2016
Without Dungey under center, any hope for a second-half comeback was out of the question for Syracuse. Clemson didn’t take its foot off the gas, either, to begin the third quarter.
Following a failed onside kick attempt by the Orange, the Tigers marched 44 yards in seven plays to increase their lead to 37 points. Junior running back Wayne Gallman capped off the drive with a five-yard touchdown run.
Cain added a second touchdown reception, and Huegel connected on a 46-yard field goal to pad Clemson’s advantage, 47-0, in the third quarter.
In the final frame, redshirt freshman safety Tanner Muse intercepted a pass from Austin Wilson and returned it 64 yards for a touchdown. According to Eric Boynton of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Muse was the first Tigers freshman since Wayne Simmons in 1989 to have a pick-six.
Looking ahead, Clemson has what could be a tough matchup on Nov. 12. The Tigers face off with the Pittsburgh Panthers, who lost 51-28 to the Miami Hurricanes. The Panthers’ three previous losses came by a combined 11 points.
Clemson should have a relatively smooth road between now and the ACC championship game on Dec. 3. If the Tigers are going to slip up before then, next week’s game against Pitt will be the likeliest stumbling block.
The Orange are two wins away from their first bowl appearance since the 2013 season, but getting to six victories won’t be easy. Syracuse has North Carolina State, Florida State and Pitt remaining on its regular-season schedule.
Syracuse won four games in Scott Shafer’s final season, and another four-win season may be on the cards. Head coach Dino Babers may not bring any improvement in terms of the team’s overall record, but the Orange appear to be headed in the right direction—Saturday’s defeat aside.
Babers wants his players to quickly move on from the Clemson loss.
“Hopefully we can survive this thing and continue on and try to have the type of season that I think these seniors deserve,” he said, according to Bailey.
Babers also rued the impact Dungey’s injury had, per the Associated Press (via FoxSports.com): “I do think anytime you lose your starting quarterback in an offense that’s designed to pass, it’s going to be a dramatic change.”
After the game, Swinney described Watson’s injury as a “stinger-type of deal in his shoulder area,” per Tony Crumpton of TigerNet.com.
“He was ready if we needed him,” Swinney said of his starting quarterback. “Great to see Nick play and play well.”