Clemson at Syracuse

Sports Xchange

October 11, 2017 at 1:27 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Friday, 7 p.m. ET
SITE: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y
TV: ESPN
SERIES: Clemson leads 4-1. The Tigers won 54-0 in 2016.
RANKINGS: Clemson No. 2

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tigers

–RB Travis Etienne is a freshman, but he’s already proven to be Clemson’s primary breakaway threat in the backfield, and that could be a quick route to success against a Syracuse run defense that ranks ninth in the ACC. Etienne is averaging an eye-popping 8.2 yards per carry and also leads all Tigers running backs with five touchdowns.

–WR Deon Cain has logged two of the better games of his career against Syracuse, so look for more of the same. In two career games against the Orange, the junior receiver has totaled nine receptions for 192 yards and three touchdowns.

–DE Austin Bryant likes to live in the opponent’s backfield. Of his 32 tackles, 11 have been for losses (36 yards) with 5.0 sacks (19). Both are team highs, and the tackles for loss rank in a tie for fourth in the country.

–LB Dorian O’Daniel is flourishing in his final collegiate season. He leads the team with 48 tackles, has shown prowess both against the run and in coverage and has returned both of his interceptions this season for touchdowns.

Orange

–TE Ravian Pierce shot up to third on the team in receptions (19) after last week’s 27-24 victory against Pittsburgh. Often used as an extra-blocker against the Panthers’ complicated blitzing schemes, Pierce was a safety valve over the middle for QB Eric Dungey, and first-year tight end caught nine balls for 99 yards.

–WR Devin Butler secured a 34-yard touchdown in the closing seconds of the second quarter against Pittsburgh. Dungey threaded the ball between two defenders, and Butler, named a starter this week against Clemson, timed his jump well. He had his best game of the season, finishing with seven catches and 64 yards.

–LB Parris Bennett is a key leader on the defense. He is fourth in the ACC in tackles per game (9.3 average) and is on pace for his second consecutive 100-plus tackle season. He had 14 last week against Pittsburgh.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

The status of Clemson starting quarterback Kelly Bryant may be somewhat in doubt, but Syracuse coach Dino Babers is of the opinion that really doesn’t matter as the two teams look to their Friday night game in the Orange’s Carrier Dome.

Kickoff is at 7 p.m. for the nationally telecast (ESPN) Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division matchup.

“They have really, really good players,” Babers said. “Whether he plays or someone else plays, there will be another five-star back there that can hand the ball off or throw to those guys.”

Babers was on the mark.

Freshman Hunter Johnson, who several scouting services rated as one of the nation’s top prep quarterback prospects last year, will start if Bryant is unable to go.

Bryant, the first Clemson quarterback to win his first six starts since Tajh Boyd opened the 2011 campaign by going 8-0, injured an ankle in last week’s 28-14 Tigers win over Wake Forest. Johnson guided the Tigers for their final three offensive series last week and completed all five of his passes for 42 yards and a touchdown.

Bryant could be a game-day decision.

“He’ll be day-to-day, and we’ll see how he progresses through the week,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “If he’s ready to play, he’ll go play. If he’s not, we’ll play the next guy.”

Clemson (6-0, 4-0 ACC) has won 12 consecutive games on the opponent’s home field — the longest streak in school history and tied for the second-longest active streak in the nation. Oklahoma has a 13-game run, and Alabama also is at 12.

The Tigers have the nation’s longest active winning streak overall, 11 in a row.

“They’re the defending champs from last year and obviously doing a great job this year,” said Babers, whose Orange (3-3, 1-1 ACC) snapped a two-game losing streak with a 39-36 win over Pittsburgh last week. “Clemson is one of the premier programs, and the way Dabo does it is absolutely the right way. I have nothing but fantastic respect for him and program.

“The biggest motivation for us is that they’re a really good football team in 2017. Not to take anything away from 2016, because they were national champs, but I think it’s more important that they’re ranked No. 2 in the country this year, and depending on where you’re at, they probably should be ranked No. 1.

“If they had a different last name, they’d be ranked No. 1, a different surname, so to speak.”

Despite losing offensive standouts such as quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman to the NFL, Clemson’s offense has remained explosive under Bryant, a stable full of running backs led by sophomore Tavien Feaster and freshman Travis Etienne, a receiving corps featuring Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow, and a veteran offensive front.

Balance has been the key to the Tigers’ early success — Clemson averages 237.3 yards rushing and 233.7 yards passing.

But the team’s primary calling card is its defense.

Led by a deep and talented front line anchored by All-America candidates Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, the Tigers rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (11.3), total defense (264.3), sacks (3.67) and fewest yards allowed per play (3.87).

“They’re solid — not only solid starters, but solid backups,” Babers said. “I mean, you can tire them out and they put someone else in … we don’t know their name, but they play just like the guy in front of them. Their front four guys, and their linebackers, they’re as good as anybody. There are no holes.”

Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey passed for 365 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers last week. The Orange have no shortage of talent at wide receiver — Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips rank first and second in the ACC in receptions.

“Syracuse is playing well — a big win against Pitt. Played LSU tight. Played N.C. State tight at N.C. State, so it’s a big challenge for us,” Swinney said. “We’ve had a tough little stretch here through the first six games and got another one this week.

“We’re looking forward to the open date afterward, but our focus is really on trying to empty our tank this week and sprint into this open date and play our best game Friday night.”

There is precedent for the Orange pulling monumental upsets against defending national champions. Syracuse topped Penn State in 1987 and Michigan in 1998 in the season after their respective national titles.