The Jackets (5-5, 4-3 ACC) will have two chances to reach six victories and automatically qualify for a bowl game. Realistically, it’s one chance because No. 2 Georgia is the final game. The Jackets will be favored against Syracuse next weekend at home, but it’s not a gimme. Tech has lost two home games when favored, versus Bowling Green and Boston College.
The Jackets got a dose of reality against Clemson. They followed good victories against then-No. 17 North Carolina and at Virginia with a dud in Death Valley.
“This game is over now, so it’s about Syracuse,” Tech defensive end Eddie Kelly said. “That’s where my head is right now.”
Tech could have wrapped up a bowl bid by scoring an upset victory over the Tigers, who were favored by two touchdowns. The Jackets had hope when they held a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. They wouldn’t score again until they faced a five-touchdown deficit.
A competitive effort quickly became another lopsided loss against the Tigers. The average margin for Clemson’s nine consecutive victories over Tech is 26.9 points. The Jackets last beat the Tigers in 2014 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. They haven’t won at Clemson since 2008, Paul Johnson’s first season as coach.
The Tigers (6-4, 3-4) have lost as many as four games for the first time since 2011. They still had little trouble handling Tech.
“They’re a great opponent,” Kelly said. “We’ve just got to be better, that’s all.”
Tech’s defense couldn’t get off the field. The Tigers were 11-for-22 on third and fourth downs. Clemson held the ball for nearly 37 minutes and scored touchdowns on all four trips inside Tech’s 20-yard line.
It appeared that Tech’s defense eventually succumbed to frustration and fatigue.
“I wouldn’t say that was a huge factor,” Tech safety Jaylon King said. “I would say it’s more of not staying on our rush lanes (and) losing vision on the quarterback.”
Tech’s defense could have been great, and it still wouldn’t have mattered much.
Jackets quarterback Haynes King threw four interceptions for the first time in 20 collegiate games. In King’s defense, he was under constant pressure from Clemson’s pass rush even before the Jackets went into pass mode. Tech’s also couldn’t rush the ball consistently because Clemson defenders were quickly in the backfield so often.
Tech’s offense missed some prime opportunities early in the game. The Jackets dropped one pass for a potential big gain on their first drive. They had another dropped pass five yards from the end zone in sight while trailing 14-7.
“That could have led to some explosive plays, generated some momentum and maybe we play the ballgame a different way,” Key said.
Clemson’s offense has been well below its usual standards for three years running. Relatedly, that’s after Trevor Lawrence left for the NFL. Great quarterbacks make great coaches. It’s not clear that Swinney can win big with his current quarterback, former five-star recruit Cade Klubnik. The Tigers entered the weekend ranked 13th of 14th ACC teams in yards per pass attempt and sixth in points.
They solved a lot of their problems against Tech. Klubnik tossed four touchdown passes. The Tigers rushed for 271 yards in 42 attempts (sacks excluded). Clemson scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the first half to take control of the game.
The Jackets had a chance to beat Clemson the last time they were here. A drive to tie that 2021 game ended on fourth-and-goal with 64 seconds left. At the time, Tech’s competitive effort seemed to be a signal that coach Geoff Collins had turned the program around. It turns out it was an early indication that Clemson was slipping from college football’s elite.
The Tigers lost three games in 2021 and again in 2022. They hadn’t lost more than two games since 2014. Even Clemson’s home invincibility has waned. The Tigers won 40 games in a row at Memorial Stadium before losing to South Carolina in November. No. 4 Florida State won here in September.
Swinney declared the Tigers were back on track after they beat then-No. 14 Notre Dame here last weekend. It didn’t look that way as Clemson flailed early against Tech’s vulnerable defense.
The Tigers went three-and-out on their first drive. Swinney tried a fake punt on Clemson’s next possession, but Tech sniffed it out to set up a first down at Clemson’s 25-yard line. Jamal Haynes ran for 20 yards on the next play. King scored on third down by patiently waiting for a crease and plunging into the end zone from four yards out.
The Jackets held their first lead at Memorial Stadium since they were up 31-30 in the fourth quarter of the 2012 meeting. Clemson responded with an 18-play touchdown drive that lasted nearly 10 minutes. The Tigers converted three third downs and two fourth downs during that possession. They ended it with Beaux Collins’ 5-yard TD catch on third down against tight coverage.
That was the start of Tech’s fade. The next possession was a three-and-out. A poor punt set up Clemson at Tech’s 42-yard line. The Tigers went for it on fourth-and-4. Klubnik passed short of the sticks to tight end Jake Briningstool, who broke a tackle to gain the first down.
Clemson tried a trick play on the next snap. Tech had Klubnik’s deep target covered, but the quarterback slipped away from a pass rusher and flipped a pass to Phil Mafah for a 19-yard catch-and-run to the 11. Three plays later, Tyler Brown made a one-handed catch for a 3-yard score.
Tech would later score two touchdowns that didn’t matter. The Tigers already were on their way to another easy victory over the Jackets. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed during a down year for Clemson.