The failed fake punt that symbolized Clemson Tigers’ terrible night

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — There were plenty of moments in Clemson‘s 27-24 loss to Syracuse that could’ve swung the game in the other direction. Perhaps if Kelly Bryant doesn’t get hurt or if two field goals weren’t botched or if the defense could’ve just gotten off the field on three third down attempts on Syracuse’s final drive, things might’ve ended differently.

Instead, it all went wrong for the second-ranked Tigers on Friday night in the Carrier Dome, and if you’re looking for one image that summed it all up, it was the fake punt. The awful, ridiculous, utterly frustrating fake punt.

Clemson had a nice drive going, marching into Syracuse territory with a chance to tie the game or take the lead, but the drive stalled at the Orange 41-yard line. The Tigers faced a fourth-and-6 and Dabo Swinney sent on the punt team.

“There was a little talk [of going for it], but with six minutes left, we wanted to try something else,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We didn’t get it done.”

That’s an understatement.

Instead of going for it or pinning Syracuse deep, Clemson punter Will Spiers ran a fake, taking the snap and throwing deep to safety Tanner Muse, who was well covered by the Orange.

Turns out, none of that was supposed to happen.

“It’s a very safe play, a rugby punt,” Dabo Swinney said. “We only throw the ball if it’s wide open.”

It wasn’t.

The throw never had a chance, and Syracuse took over on downs. Clemson’s offense didn’t run another play.

Swinney said Spiers decided on his own that, despite Syracuse’s coverage, he could make the throw. When it fell incomplete, Swinney ripped into his punter on the sideline.

Afterward, however, Swinney adopted a much different tone.

“That’s a freshman, and I put him in that situation,” Swinney said. “It’s on me. Obviously I didn’t do a good enough job of coaching that. That’s 100 percent on the coach.”

That was a popular refrain for the entire night. Swinney chalked up most of Clemson’s problems to poor coaching, and there was plenty of blame to go around.

The Tigers were 2-of-11 on third down, its third worst conversion rate since Swinney became head coach in 2008.

They were flagged for 11 penalties for 119 yards, just the third time under Swinney that Clemson has had more than 100 yards in penalties.

The playcalling was curious throughout, with an overwhelming number of pass plays despite the success of the ground game and the injury to Bryant.

And, of course, the fake punt.

In the end, there’s plenty for Clemson to unpack, and the fake punt probably won’t be at the top of the list of bye-week focal points. But it was a sign of how bad Friday the 13th went for the Tigers.

“They outplayed us and our coaches,” Swinney said of Syracuse after the game. “So, there’s a lot we have to talk about and a lot we need to fix. We made mistakes, we had a lot of penalties, and the third downs, we couldn’t stop them. We just didn’t do the things you have to do to win games.”

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