Before Syracuse football’s showdown with No. 2 Clemson on Saturday, Orange Nation had several legitimate reasons to believe its team could hang with the Tigers. Clemson entered the contest as four-touchdown favorites, but SU had won its past two games (including a 31-17 victory over 17th-ranked Virginia Tech, the program’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2012), got an extra week to prepare for its trip to Death Valley, and features a high-powered offense that should, theoretically, be able to score against anybody.
So much for that. Clemson embarrassed Syracuse, 54-0, and injured more than the Orange’s ego in a game that resulted in potentially crippling long-term side-effects for Dino Babers and company.
SU quarterback Eric Dungey, who had recently emerged as a bona fide above-average Power Five starter, left the game late in the first quarter after taking a crushing blow to his head and shoulder area. Dungey’s helmet was sandwiched between those of two Tigers defenders, leaving him in street clothes for the rest of the day. After the contest, Babers was reticent when asked about Dungey’s status.
“Medical people haven’t given me the total deal,” Babers told reporters. “They just said he couldn’t come back into the game.”
It’s unfortunate when any player suffers a head injury, but it’s especially deflating for Dungey, who missed time with two concussions during his freshman season. If the injury that knocked him out of Saturday’s game winds up with the same diagnosis, Dungey’s career — with SU, at least — could be over.
As Syracuse.com’s Nate Mink wrote in February: “There is no limit on the number of concussions a player can suffer before being medically disqualified. Syracuse University sends a letter home if a player has missed time on two occasions because of concussions, explaining that a third concussion could end their career.”
This goes beyond Saturday’s tilt, it goes beyond the Orange’s season, and it goes beyond the sport. Dungey needs to ensure that he can sustain a normal life after he hangs up his cleats, and after this latest hit, perhaps the sophomore should weigh the risks and benefits of playing football.
SU’s offense was lifeless with Dungey on the field (three drives, 10 plays, 19 yards, one first down, one interception), and it didn’t improve after the starting signal-caller was relegated to the sidelines. Surprisingly, Babers handed the offensive keys to Austin Wilson, who wasn’t even listed on the depth chart entering Saturday, rather than Zack Mahoney, Dungey’s presumed backup. Unsurprisingly, Wilson floundered against one of the nation’s fiercest defenses, completing 17-of-27 passes for 116 yards (4.3 yards per attempt), no touchdowns, and a pair of picks. The consistently-dreadful Syracuse ground “attack” also sputtered — the Orange picked up just 3.8 yards per carry — and a Babers-led team was shut out for the first time in his five years as a head coach.
SU didn’t fare much better on the other side of the ball, even though Clemson lost its own starting quarterback in the first half. With a couple minutes remaining in the second quarter, Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson suffered a shoulder injury that ended his day. Watson could have returned, according to Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, but his team didn’t even remotely need the projected top-five NFL draft pick to come back in order to coast to a win.
Watson led Clemson to a 23-0 edge, and brought the offense into Syracuse territory on a drive that ended in a Tigers touchdown before exiting. After that, backup quarterback Nick Schuessler essentially activated the team’s “cruise control” setting, but he still picked apart the paper-thin and ultra-flammable SU secondary for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
While Watson rightfully attracts most of the headlines, Clemson’s supporting cast stacks up favorably against any in the country. Wideouts Deon Cain (five receptions, 125 yards, two touchdowns) and Mike Williams (six receptions, 106 yards, one touchdown) routinely hauled in spectacular catches in traffic, making the second-string passer’s job relatively easy. Artavis Scott, a freakishly-athletic, gadget-type receiver — like a taller (5-foot-10), lite version of Percy Harvin — tacked on seven grabs for 45 yards and another touchdown. Junior running back Wayne Gallman, often overshadowed by his backfield partner but a terrific talent in his own right, registered just 10 carries for 63 yards and a score, but could have complied much gaudier numbers had the game remained competitive.
All those blue-chippers (plus a behemoth offensive line whose average starter checks in at 312 pounds) were simply too much for the Orange’s undermatched and injury-plagued defense. The talent gap was even more apparent when Syracuse had possession; Clemson is a factory for NFL-caliber defenders — four players from the Tigers front-seven have been drafted inside the top-33 over the past two years — and this year, that unit is as loaded as it’s ever been.
The enormous chasm between the two ACC teams in terms of raw athleticism was apparent on several occasions. Midway through the first quarter, Watson rolled to his right and discarded Zaire Franklin, the captain and best player on SU’s defense, with a casual stiff-arm. Later in the opening frame, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware suplexed Syracuse’s starting running back, Dontae Strickland, WWE-style (Boulware got flagged, but it was still amazing). Then, less than a minute into the second period, Cain flat-out barbecued Christopher Frederick, a freshman defensive back, on his way to an easy 65-yard touchdown reception.
There weren’t many positive takeaways from the Orange’s shellacking at the hands of Clemson, but Babers, as he’s wont to do, managed to find one: Syracuse can use the Tigers as a blueprint for building a national powerhouse.
“Now that you know what the top of the mountain is, now you can have a plan to get there,” Babers said. “You see what their D-line looks like, you see what their safeties look like. You know what to go get, like a hunting dog once you’ve got the odor.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s exciting, because we know what we’re shooting for. We’re shooting for a doggone good football team in Clemson.”