Dabo Swinney’s 201st game as Clemson coach was unlike anything he has ever seen as the ninth-ranked Tigers lost 28-7 to Duke on Monday, giving the Blue Devils their first win against a AP top-10 opponent since 1989. The story coming out of the game wasn’t solely centered around the fact that the Tigers lost, rather much of the focus was on how Clemson went about losing its season-opening ACC showdown in prime time for the entire country to witness.
You want some eye-opening stats? Clemson had four red zone possessions and reached Duke territory on eight of its 13 offensive drives. Still, the Tigers managed to score just seven points. If you’ve followed the Swinney era at Clemson to this point, you could understand how the longtime Tigers coach would leave completely flabbergasted at his team’s abysmal performance.
“If you really watched the game, you know what happened in the game,” Swinney said. “We just self-imploded in some critical situations and, again, you’ve got to finish. It was routine stuff. The basics. The fundamentals. Ball handling. Just some basic, basic stuff. Not jumping offside on first-and-goal from the one. Basic stuff. It’s the weirdest game I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve been beat. I’ve had my butt kicked many times in my career. I can honestly say that’s one of the strangest games I’ve ever been a part of.”
In its first game under new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, Clemson outgained Duke both through the air and (209-175) on the ground (213-199). The Tigers found almost every way they could to avoid finishing drives. Swinney also noted that Clemson was 108-0 all-time when it passed and rushed for at least 200 yards.
“It’s almost indescribable, what I just saw,” Swinney said. “I mean, it’s incredibly frustrating when you have so much opportunity and you get nothing. I didn’t think there was any bad matchups or anything like that. They’re a good team with good players. Again, they hung in there, but I thought we … I thought we were kind of getting control of it there in the third quarter. We just needed one drive, one score. You can’t just keep giving a good team opportunities, ’cause sooner or later they capitalize, and they did.”
Clemson’s key mistakes pile up
With about nine minutes left in the first quarter, Clemson worked the ball to Duke’s 22-yard line before producing three consecutive plays that created a net total of -1 yards. On fourth-and-12 from Duke’s 24, Clemson lined up for a 41-yard field goal that was subsequently blocked by Duke’s Wesley Williams.
Duke was unable to capitalize, and the two teams traded a few empty possessions until early in the second quarter when Blue Devils punt returner Jalon Calhoun tried to catch a kick off the hop but fumbled it away to Clemson’s coverage unit. It took the Tigers five plays from Duke’s 18-yard line, but they scored their only points of the game as a result and took that 7-6 lead into the half.
Duke scored a touchdown on its opening drive in the second half and Clemson responded by having another field goal — this one from Duke’s 4-yard line — blocked by Williams. Clemson’s defense forced a three-and-out, and on the ensuing possession, Riley’s unit moved the ball all the way to Duke’s 7-yard line; however, Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik fumbled the ball on an exchange with running back Will Shipley.
Clemson’s fatal blow came early in the fourth quarter. After forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball on its own 40-yard line, the Tigers marched all the way to Duke’s goal line. Taking the snap from a split-back formation with 1 yard to go before the end zone, Klubnik handed the ball to running back Phil Mafah, who didn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage before a Duke defender put his helmet on the ball and forced it out.
Duke defensive back Jaylen Stinson recovered the ball and ran it 55 yards into Clemson territory. Duke running back Jaquez Moore scored a few plays later to give his team a two-possession lead, and the Blue Devils cruised from there to secure their biggest win over Clemson since 1936.