By JOHN KEKIS
The Associated Press
SYRACUSE — Top-ranked Clemson plays its first road game tonight, and the Tigers have good reason to be wary.
The opponent is Syracuse, which has given the Tigers fits the past two times these teams have met and will have a packed and roaring Carrier Dome on its side.
“It’s always a good challenge to go on the road. It’s just different,” Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “Last time the team went to Syracuse, I wasn’t on the team, but they beat us. So we’ll have some motivation going into the game.”
Lawrence debuted as the Clemson starter last year against Syracuse but was knocked out of the game in the second quarter after a helmet hit. The Orange nearly pulled off a monumental upset in Death Valley, leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter before backup Chase Brice executed a 94-yard drive capped by Travis Etienne’s short scoring run in the final minute of a 27-23 victory.
That Syracuse (1-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) was the last team to defeat Clemson (2-0, 1-0) in the regular season — 27-24 two years ago in the Carrier Dome — will add to the intrigue of this key Atlantic Division matchup, as will the din in the Loud House from the homecoming crowd. The school announced Thursday that attendance will surpass 49,057 (capacity is 49,262) and will be the ninth football sellout in Dome history.
Syracuse is coming off a 43-point loss at Maryland that dropped the Orange out of the rankings. Lawrence, a 6-foot-6 preseason AP All-American, Etienne and all of Clemson’s other offensive weapons pose a tall task. The Tigers are averaging 38 points after convincing wins over Georgia Tech and then-No. 12 Texas A&M .
The national champions have won 17 straight to match the school record, and it’s the longest winning streak in the nation.
“We have to find a way to get a pass rush,” Orange coach Dino Babers said. “You’ve got to try to find a way to try to get some kind of pressure on him or it’s going to be a long day.”
Even with pressure, Lawrence usually has an answer.
“You really don’t get a chance unless he comes out of the pocket,” Babers said. “And when he comes out of the pocket, he’s athletic, he’s fast, and he might throw better on the move than he does in the pocket. He’s the real deal. I hope we can put pressure on him. I don’t know if it’s realistic, but we’ll try.”
Other things to watch:
Syracuse’s win over the Tigers in 2017 was the last one for the Orange that season. They lost their last five games to finish 4-8. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Syracuse’s poor performance last week at Maryland is an afterthought at best for a team that was picked to finish second to Clemson in the division.
“If a 4-8 team can beat us, a 1-1 team can,” Swinney said. “This is a division game. They are going to be confident. They’ll want to get their season back on track.”
They call the Carrier Dome the Loud House and Babers has drawn a lot of attention to the program with his locker room rant of “Whose House?” after big wins.
None was bigger than the one over Clemson. The Tigers were ranked second and had won 12 consecutive games on the opponent’s home field, the longest streak in Clemson history.
It was loud then. It’ll be even louder this time.
“This will be a new experience,” Orange sophomore free safety Andre Cisco said. “From what I hear, it’s like nothing else.”
The Orange were unbeaten at home last season.
Clemson freshman Tyler Davis has already been tagged “Baby Dex” since seamlessly taking the spot of three-year defensive tackle starter Dexter Lawrence. The 6-foot-1, 290-pounder has started both games and has seven tackles. He’s helped the Tigers allow only 210 yards rushing in the first two games.
Syracuse redshirt sophomore QB Tommy DeVito succeeded Eric Dungey, who passed for over 500 yards and three TDs and ran for two scores in the previous two games against the Tigers with just one turnover. DeVito, who prefers to set up in the pocket, has shown improvement in the up-tempo attack despite a young offensive line dealing with an injury to center Sam Heckel. DeVito finished 28 of 39 for 330 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland but lost a fumble and threw an interception, and the Terps converted both turnovers into scores.
“He’s been in the system, so it’s not like they just signed him,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “There are probably more similarities (with Dungey) than there are differences. They make you defend every patch of grass.”