It was ugly at times, but it’s still a win

Dabo Swinney called Saturday’s game against Syracuse frustrating. It certainly was for a half and part of the third quarter.

For the offense, at least.

But ugly wins, even after they keep happening, still count as wins, and that’s what Clemson is clinging to now.

For the third straight week, the Clemson offense really struggled, but the team was able to continue to win. The Tigers have won five straight games since their loss to Florida State and were undefeated in October, and that’s all that really matters.

That said, Saturday’s first half was as ugly a display of offense as Clemson fans have sat through in a long time. Through the first two quarters, Clemson’s offense had 34 plays for 157 yards and three bad turnovers. Two of those turnovers came by quarterback Cole Stoudt on an interception and a fumble (he had another interception in the second half), while C.J. Davidson missed out on a clear touchdown run when he dropped a pitch from Stoudt as Syracuse recovered the ball deep in its own territory.

Stoudt’s first-half interception led to the Orange’s first field goal, and his fumble led to the Orange’s second field goal and gave Syracuse a 6-3 halftime lead.

The were plenty of unhappy and nervous folks in the Homecoming crowd as the two teams left the field for halftime.

The offense was a little better in the second half (more on that later), but it can’t continue to play like this if Clemson is going to win at a high level. Yes, dynamic quarterback Deshaun Watson is out and there have been a ton of other injuries, but Stoudt has to play better and make better decisions, and the offensive line has to play better and be more physical. Also, offensive coordinator Chad Morris has to call a better game (there were times Saturday night that the folks in the upper deck were calling out his plays before he called them, and many times those didn’t work). In short, the entire offense has to improve.

Clemson’s offense has scored three touchdowns in the past three games, and it has been a long time since the Tigers’ offense has been that ineffective.

In a word, it was ugly … for two-plus quarters.

Dominant (again and again) on defense
You sit and watch this team play week to week and think, “It just can’t continue to lean on this defense this much. At some point it’s going to slip up.”

But that just hasn’t happened during this recent streak of offensive struggles.

The defense hasn’t let up, and it has been the reason the Tigers keep winning. And Saturday might have been its best performance yet.

While the offense was awful for two quarters, the defense was dominant yet again.

Syracuse managed just 170 total yards – 88 rushing and 82 passing – on 62 plays. That’s an average of 2.7 yards per play.

Time and time again, the offense put the defense in tight spots, and every time, this unit stepped up. The Tigers had four sacks (it seemed like there were more than that) and 12 tackles for loss, and they forced three turnovers in crucial situations. Those are special numbers.

The defense was especially special on third down, yet again. Syracuse was 3-for-16 on third-down tries, meaning Clemson’s past three opponents have gone 6-for-47 in third-down situations. And those haven’t come in blowouts when that statistic can sometimes be meaningless. Just the opposite, those performances have come in tight games when this team really has needed this unit to step up.

And it has.

Offense finally gets going
The offense was bad in the first half. We have been clear about that. There were missed throws and a lot of missed blocks by the offensive line. Those led to missed opportunities.

But mostly there were turnovers.

In the second half, Clemson cut down on the turnovers, and that helped the offense perform a little bit better.

Stoudt had just one interception after the break (on both of his picks it appeared his arm was hit on the throw), and there were no fumbles, and because of that, the offense looked better. There was still a third-and-goal from the 2 that the Tigers couldn’t punch into the end zone (that drive ended in a field goal), but there were a couple of nice drives after halftime. The offense was in a much better rhythm in the second half, running 49 plays for 218 yards, and Stoudt made maybe the best throw he has ever made in his Clemson career.

After a night of missed throws and indecision, Stoudt threw an absolute bullet to Stanton Seckinger for a 19-yard scoring pass to open the fourth quarter. It was as good a throw as you will see a college quarterback make – right on the money and on time, and it was just missed by the Syracuse defender – for what turned out to be pretty much the game-clinching score.

Almost as impressive was the final drive of the game as the offense ran 15 plays to take the final eight minutes off the clock.

Gallman carries the load
Clemson’s running game certainly isn’t going to scare anyone off right now – the Tigers did only average 3.5 yards per carry Saturday – but it might have found its go-to guy, finally.

Davidson looked good before his fumble, but Wayne Gallman was the story of the night for the Clemson offense. He averaged only 3.6 yards, but he ran hard throughout the game, and he certainly looked like someone who can be the featured back.

The redshirt freshman had 28 carries for 101 yards, and at times, he was the best and most dependable option for the Tigers’ offense.

Lakip looks like a different kicker
Ammon Lakip looks nothing like the shaky and inexperienced kicker who struggled at Georgia and Florida State early in the season.

He made field goals of 38, 18 and 41 yards and looked comfortable and confident on each kick. His 41-yarder late in the third quarter was true from the moment it was kicked, and it gave Clemson its first lead of the game and seemed to settle down an impatient Clemson crowd.

What’s next?
Clemson has let inferior opponents hang around the past three weeks before pulling out wins.

It has some time off before facing Wake Forest on Nov. 6 (a Thursday night game on ESPN), but the concern is after Saturday is whether this team can win again with little to no offense but one of the best defenses in the country and steady special teams.

That formula has worked for three straight weeks, but it’s nerve-raking, and you’d have to think there will come a time that it won’t work and that the offense has to step up and improve.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at Top Stories