For the majority of Saturday’s game against No. 4 Florida State, Clemson didn’t look like a team that’s spent two weeks ranked outside the AP Top 25.
The Tigers got a swarming effort from their defense, big plays from a number of offensive skill players and an efficient game from quarterback Cade Klubnik.
So, why did Clemson still fall in heartbreaking fashion to FSU, losing 31-24 in overtime in a game where they often looked like the more capable team?
“Critical mistakes,” coach Dabo Swinney.
Those are piling up at an alarming rate for a Clemson program that’s now lost five of its last eight games against Power Five teams and Notre Dame dating back to November 2022, and sits in a tie for dead last in the ACC at 0-2 four weeks into the 2023 season.
And they continue to pop up in the worst moments for the Tigers, who snapped a 25-game home conference game winning streak on Saturday despite once again totaling more first downs than their opponent and leading FSU by 10 points in the first half.
Clemson had a season-defining win in reach numerous times in the second half but couldn’t execute against a Florida State team that won its first game in Death Valley since 2013 and formally established as the new top dog in the ACC.
Swinney chalked up the majority of errors to coaching mistakes but reiterated postgame he still believes in his players and his staff to turn the season around.
“Obviously, we’ve got our back against the wall,” Swinney said. “We’ll be back in here (Sunday) as a staff and then Monday as a team and find a way to win a game this week. Long season ahead, so a lot of opportunity ahead.”
What went wrong in Clemson’s loss to FSU?
The same procedural issues that popped up in Clemson’s season-opening loss at Duke and lackluster first quarter against Charleston Southern reared their ugly head in the third quarter.
The Tigers led 17-14 at halftime against Florida State — which has ranked as high as No. 3 nationally this season — and responded with their best drive of the game after FSU tied the score at 17-17 early in the third quarter.
Then disaster struck.
Running back Phil Mafah missed his blocking assignment on a second-and-10 from FSU’s 29-yard line, allowing FSU linebacker Kalen DeLoach to scream in unblocked, light up Klubnik, force a fumble and return it 56 yards to the house for a game-tying touchdown.
Suddenly, 24-17 (perhaps 31-17) became 24-24.
“The offensive fumble for the touchdown was a critical play in the game,” Swinney said. “All the momentum turned right there.”
FSU ROCKS KLUBNIK AND TAKE THE FUMBLE FOR A TD!
What a game in Death Valley!
— MyBookie - Bet With The Best (@MyBookie) September 23, 2023
Indeed, despite the Clemson defense allowing zero points across five second-half FSU possessions, the offense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
That was especially noticeable on the Tigers’ last three offensive possessions of the game, which put a major damper on what was a well-called game by offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and an “amazing” game from Klubnik, according to Swinney.
With the score tied 24-24, Clemson got the ball back with 7:03 left in the fourth quarter and cruised down the field with a win in sight. But after Klubnik hit receiver Tyler Brown on a third-and-6, taking Clemson down to FSU’s 12-yard line, the Tigers got conservative.
The next three plays: a 1-yard Will Shipley run, an incomplete pass and a Klubnik 1-yard quarterback draw, which Swinney defended postgame as something Riley thought was “gonna pop” but certainly gave off “settling-for-a-field-goals” intentions.
Clemson drained 5:18 of game time but got zero points out of the possession, as new starting kicker Jonathan Weitz — a former walk-on and graduate student who came out of retirement this week amid the team’s kicking struggles — missed a 29-yarder with 1:45 remaining.
“We thought it was gonna hit,” Swinney said of the QB draw play. “Especially with what their call was … But it didn’t work out, so you get to ask the question. But I have no problem with how Garrett called the game. I thought he did a heck of a job.”
Clemson struggles in overtime
Next up was a confusing, last-second drive in which Clemson briefly considered but decided against going for a Hail Mary at the end of regulation.
The Tigers defense had forced a turnover on downs with 12 seconds left — their fifth straight stop against a potent FSU offense — and Shipley ripped off a 13-yard run down to FSU’s 48-yard line. But the offense, after a quick look to the sidelines, let time run out.
Swinney — who had to use two timeouts earlier in the second half due to procedural issues — said Clemson considered spiking the ball “for a second.”
“But we just didn’t have it organized enough,” Swinney said,
Finally, in overtime, Clemson was on the ropes after Travis’ 24-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Keon Coleman and pulled out a puzzling play call. Trailing 31-24, Clemson ran a run-pass option for Klubnik on third-and-1 from FSU’s 16-yard line.
Instead of handing the ball off to running back Will Shipley, who’d been productive all day, Klubnik pulled the ball and threw a bubble screen to wide receiver Adam Randall for a 1-yard loss. A play later, he threw incomplete to receiver Beaux Collins and the game was over.
On that Clemson 3rd-and-1 in OT, it was an option play.
Klubnik choose the pass instead of hand off, and Dabo couldn't believe it. He yelled "One yard!" pic.twitter.com/fJxThRHwLm
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) September 23, 2023
Klubnik owned the mistake postgame — “That’s my fault,” he said — but Swinney described it as a situation where “we’ve got to do better as coaches to help our quarterback” in a key moment.
Klubnik is still growing “situationally,” Swinney said, and he wished Clemson made things simpler for its starting quarterback in that moment by eliminating any option from the play and making it a straight-up run.
Keeping Mafah (who averaged a team-high 6.9 yards per carry up to that point) off the field in a short-yardage situation where he generally excels was noteworthy, too.
It was the last of many “critical” mistakes that all but eliminated Clemson from College Football Playoff contention (no team has made the four-team field with two losses) and sent the Tigers into another week of focusing on the basics — not the pattern you’re looking for in Week 4.
“Again, my heart breaks for our team because this is a great team, a great group of young men who really truly care about each other,” Swinney said. “They fought with everything they had. So it’s one of those that’s tough to lose, but we did.”
NEXT CLEMSON GAME
Who: Clemson (2-2, 0-2 ACC) at Syracuse (4-0, 0-0 ACC)
When: noon, Saturday, Sept. 30
Where: JMA Wireless Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.