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Clemson Falls to FSU in OT

It is no secret that so far in the 2023 season, the Clemson Tigers have not lived up to the expectations the program has established over the last decade. They opened the season with a disappointing loss on the road at Duke, struggled for a half against a Charleston Southern team that, for perspective’s sake, was a false start away from losing to division II North Greenville the week prior. Over the last 2 weeks, we have seen them play more like they should, eventually pulling away from CSU in big fashion for a 66-17 drubbing and not allowing a point in the 2nd half. Last week against Florida Atlantic, the Tiger defense forced 4 turnovers – 3 interceptions and a fumble, helping propel Clemson to a 48-14 win. 


Still, even with the positives, it was hard to deny that something was missing with this team, and it had Clemson fans as well as Dabo Swinney and his staff scrambling for answers. After today’s hard-fought game against #4 Florida State, some of those question marks may have finally found a resolution. 


One area that could not be ignored coming in was special teams. Kicker Robert Gunn III had been abysmal with fieldgoals so far this season, going 1 for 4, a whopping 25 percent on his attempts through the first 4 games, 0 for 2 from distances of 30 yards or more. That prompted Dabo to make a change this week – starting former walk-on Jonathan Weitz, a redshirt senior that was not even on campus, nor had he attempted a fieldgoal prior to today. Weitz is a graduate student who completed his bachelors degree back in the spring of 2022, having served as the backup for BT Potter from 2019-2022, and was living in Charleston while taking his graduate courses online up until Dabo Swinney made a phone call to him and had him return to Clemson’s roster less than a week ago. 


With such a bizarre yet heartwarming story, it was only fitting that Weitz, who was announced during starting lineups in pregame to a raucous cheer from the student section, scored the first points of the game for the Tigers – capping a 15 play, 79 yard drive with a 30 yard fieldgoal right down the middle. He would also have a chance to win the game for Clemson, but before getting to that, there was a load of action in between, and even following the big moment. 


The Tigers’ defense was as solid as they ever have been early on in this game, forcing punts on each of the Seminoles’ first 2 possessions. One of those 2 punts sailed out of bounds at the Clemson 49, giving them a flipped field that would lead to the Tigers taking a 10 point lead later on when Cade Klubnik lined up under center and snuck in from a yard out to cap the 51 yard drive with 11:33 to play in the first half. 


Florida State finally found an answer and got into a rhythm with a methodical 13-play 75 yard drive during which Jordan Travis and the Noles converted a 4th and 1 from the FSU 47. They followed that with a couple of big passes that somewhat took advantage of breakdowns in coverage by the Clemson secondary. Once for a 37 yard gain, and the other on a big 3rd and goal from the 7 to a wide open Keon Coleman in the middle of the endzone for a TD that cut the deficit to 10-7 with just over 5 minutes to play in the half. 


Now for one of the biggest positives from this game for Clemson. Cade Klubnik played much more up to his potential. A perfect example came on Clemson’s next series when, with momentum about to swing, the Tigers put together one of their best drives of the day. One of the keys on offense in this game was that Clemson managed to use the middle of the field to their advantage, running a lot of slants and crossing routes, using the physical running back duo of Will Shipley and Phil Mafah to open it up. Executing that key well was also a big part of this drive’s success. 


The Tigers set up shop at their own 29 after a 26 yard kickoff return from the 3. In 5 plays, the Tigers marched all the way down to the FSU 8 yard line using tight end Jake Briningstool and  receiver Troy Stellato to their advantage. On 3rd and goal from the 10, Klubnik hit Will Shipley over the middle, who bulldozed his way through a defender and across the goal line to re-up Clemson’s lead to 10 with 2:12 to play before the intermission. 


It did not take Florida State long to throw another punch as the Seminoles drove right down the field and scored with 22 ticks left on the clock via a Jordan Travis QB sneak from a yard out on 3rd and goal. This 5 play, 75 yard drive was kept alive on 2 different occasions – once on another breakdown in the Clemson defensive backfield when Travis was able to escape the pocket and deliver a strike to a wide open Keon Coleman for a big gain to the Tigers’ 26. The next play, a pass interference call set up a 1st and 10 from the 11. 


The Tigers went into the interval leading by a slim 17-14 margin, setting the stage for an absolutely wild 2nd half. 


Florida State received the 2nd half kick, and on their first play from scrimmage, picked up 41 yards on a pass from Jordan Travis to Johnny Wilson to the Clemson 34. The Seminoles, after having a first down called back by an illegal formation penalty after converting a 4th and 1, settled for a 47 yard fieldgoal to tie the game at 17 early in the 3rd quarter. 


From there, it became a defensive back and forth.


Clemson went on to take a 24-17 lead late in the 3rd quarter on a 1 yard Will Shipley TD run. That play was set up by one of the best throws Cade Klubnik may have ever made since becoming the starting QB. He was under heavy pressure with a blitzer coming off the edge. As he was getting slammed to the turf, he threw an absolute dart on a slant across the middle to Jake Briningstool to set up 1st and goal. 


The highlights for Klubnik did not come without a low a little later. In a play that truly swung the game, Clemson had just broken off a 45 yard run on first down following an FSU 3 and out when Phil Mafah busted loose and got to the sideline. The very next play, Cade Klubnik was strip-sacked after standing in the pocket for too long, resulting in Florida State tying the game when it looked as if a play before that the Tigers were about to go up a pair of scores late. Kalen DeLoach picked up the fumble and took off for a 65 yard scoop and score, making it 24-24 with over 30 seconds to play in the 3rd quarter. 


That set the stage for a wild 4th quarter that saw each team punt twice. It was Clemson who had the best chance to break the tie when once again the Tigers used the middle of the field as well as some shifty running by Klubnik to move the ball. The drive stalled at the FSU 13 yardline, setting up a potential go-ahead 30 yard fieldgoal for Weitz. Unfortunately, he pushed it just wide left, leaving the game tied with 1:54 to play. But, don;t let that discourage you. Dabo Swinney was still very pleased with what he saw from his new kicker. 


“You know we expect them to make it, he expects to make it. He made one earlier in the game that gave us an opportunity, and he made all his extra points. He did some good things for us. He wasn’t perfect, but nobody was today. He gave us a chance and he didn’t do anything today to lose the job”, said Swinney. 


Following the miss, Clemson’s defense bent, but did not break in the red zone. Nate Wiggins broke up a pass and forced a turnover on downs that gave the Tigers the ball with just 12 seconds on the clock with no timeouts. While the Tigers had a chance to take a couple of shots, ultimately, they failed to get organized in time and sent the game to overtime, opting to go on defense first. 


Florida State put the pressure on quickly as Jordan Travis hit Keon Coleman wide open in the corner of the endzone for a 24 yard TD to go up 31-24. 


Fast forward to 3rd and 1 on Clemson’s final drive. After a big 9 yard run by Will Shipley, rather than pick up the first down on the ground, they went play action and threw a bubble screen to Adam Randall for no gain, putting them in a game-deciding 4th down situation. On 4th down, Klubnik tried to hit Beaux Collins, but couldn’t get the ball to him as he threw behind him, as FSU held on for the 31-24 win. 


Asked about the game management in the final seconds of regulation and in the overtime period, Swinney responded with this. 


“We did {consider spiking it to try for a Hail Mary at the end of regulation} for a second, but we just didn’t have it organized enough to get it done. It was happening fast. (Regarding the screen on 3rd and 1 in overtime) We expected him {Klubnik} to hand the ball off right there. That’s situational awareness, but that’s where we can be better as coaches. We could help him right there, but we were just making a lock call not even having that as an option. Situationally, we just have to learn from it. You assume that he knows situations and we’re all on the same page right there, but that’s something we can do better.” 


As mentioned earlier, despite the fumble and the breakdown in awareness on the decision to throw a screen for no gain on 3rd and 1 with the game on the line, Klubnik by far played his best game as a starter, going 25-38 with 283 yards and a TD.


“I thought Kade was amazing. That kid was amazing and it was an absolutely amazing performance by him. He made huge plays. It was his best game and I hate that he didn’t get the reward for it because he made a lot of plays under pressure, made a lot of plays with his legs, and showed progress in  critical situations he needed to keep improving in. I was really proud of Cade and how he competed”, said Swinney. 


Aside from Klubnik’s performance, seven different Clemson receivers tallied double figures, with Tyler Brown leading the way. Brown had 5 catches for 84 yards. Jake Briningstool and Troy Stellato both contributed well with a combined 88 yards on 7 receptions. Phil Mafah and Will Shipley combined for 136 yards and a TD on the ground while Klubnik added a net of 10 with a TD. 


“That honestly was probably as tough a loss as I’ve ever been a part of. You win one like that and you’re on top of the world. You lose and you’re just sick to your stomach. But it was a great game and a tremendous effort by both teams”, said Dabo Swinney in his postgame thoughts. 


“You gotta congratulate Florida State. They made one more play than we did and games like this can come down to 2 or 3 plays. They made a couple of critical plays and found ways to get it done. I’m super proud of our guys and how they competed. That was a hard-fought and competitive game and we never trailed until overtime. We led pretty much the entire game, but it comes down to the story of our season at this point, and that’s turnovers. We’re 2-2 right now because we have given up 36 points off turnovers. We gave up 38 points off turnovers all last year in 14 ball games, and we’ve given up 36, so that’s just big picture. We think we’re about to go up 14 points and next thing you know it’s a tied game. You have to give Florida State credit for that”, he added. 


Swinney wrapped up by saying  “All you can do is learn from it, pick yourself up, keep moving. We have our backs against the wall and we’ll get in here on Monday and find a way to go win a game this week. It’s a long season ahead so there’s a lot of opportunity ahead. My heart breaks for our team because this is a great team and a great group of young men that care about each other. They fought with everything they had today. It’s tough to lose, but we will keep moving.” 


Clemson, now 2-2 on the season, will set their sights towards building on the progress and getting back in the win column next week at the Carrier Dome as they take on Syracuse with a noon kickoff. 

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