No. 9 Clemson opened the 2023 season in disastrous fashion.
The Tigers couldn’t get out of the way in an errant 28-7 away loss to Duke on Monday night in Durham, North Carolina. On a string of three consecutive drives in the second half, Clemson drove the ball inside the Duke 10-yard line but failed to score a single point.
Duke led 13-7 early in the third quarter as the Tigers hit the 1-yard line, but their drive ended in a blocked 23-yard field goal. Clemson was pushed back by a false start and a 4-yard loss on the first descent before making an incomplete pass on the second descent and a 6-yard run for 4 on the third descent. With plenty of time left, head coach Dabo Swinney fielded his field goal unit, but Robert Gunn III’s chip-shot kick was blocked. It was the second kick the newcomer had blocked that night.
Clemson’s next two trips deep into Duke territory were even worse.
On the next drive, Clemson had a first-and-goal at the Duke 7 but made it back to the Blue Devils due to a botched quarterback-running-back swap between Cade Klubnik and Will Shipley.
From there it got even worse. Phil Mafah, hitting a first-and-goal run from the 1, fumbled and the loose ball bounced straight into the arms of Duke’s Jaylen Stinson. He fumbled back to a Clemson 33 and set up a touchdown run from Jaquez Moore that gave the Blue Devils a 21-7 lead with 10:33 left and set the stage for an incredible Duke win.
Clemson’s offensive problems continue
It was a complete meltdown for Clemson, intended to serve as a demonstration of the program’s improved offense under new coordinator Garrett Riley. Instead, many of the offensive issues the Tigers have struggled with in recent seasons have been apparent to all.
Clemson moved the ball mostly on the ground with Shipley and Mafah (both combined for 179 yards on 28 carries), but passing was lacking. Clemson’s only points of the game, a 2-yard touchdown catch from Shipley that gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead at halftime, came from a punt muted by Duke.
Klubnik, Clemson’s prized quarterback recruit who ousted DJ Uiagalelei to Oregon State, clearly has talent. He made some impressive shots and also showed a consistent ability to dodge pressure and gain yards with his legs. But the group of receivers he works with didn’t inspire much confidence, a problem that has plagued this team for the past two seasons.
Klubnik only threw 209 yards in 43 attempts. He missed a few early shots, including a dropped interception from Duke in Clemson’s first series, but it just didn’t seem like Clemson’s receivers could get much of a lead. Klubnik averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt and his longest finish of the night was just 21 yards. As the Tigers fell two points behind, they didn’t have a chance to get back into the game in the fourth quarter.
Antonio Williams and Beaux Collins led Clemson, but those two combined for just 106 yards on 12 catches. No other wideout has had more than two catches in the loss. And then, in the closing minutes, as Clemson desperately tried to mount a comeback, a catchable pass deflected off the hands of the otherwise reliable Shipley and went straight into the arms of Duke’s Dorian Mausi, who was able to intercept it.
That turnover, Clemson’s third rally of the night, sealed the surprise for the Blue Devils.
The accumulation of receiver talent was in stark contrast to the passing skills of No. 8 Florida State — Clemson’s top ACC challenger — demonstrated in a high-profile win over No. 5 LSU on Sunday night. Most notably, FSU pulled off an incredible performance from Michigan State transfer Keon Coleman, who caught nine passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
Swinney has adamantly refused to use the transfer portal even when there are clear weaknesses in his squad and it’s hard not to make the connections as other programs put Swinney’s program to shame.
An incredible win for Duke
Duke’s program was in disrepair when head coach Mike Elko arrived ahead of the 2022 season. Over the past two seasons, the Blue Devils have had a 5-18 combined record and a 1-17 record in ACC play.
Since Elko’s arrival, the Blue Devils have won 10 of their 14 games. Last year, the Blue Devils surprised everyone by winning the Military Bowl 9-4. And now they’ve kicked off the season with one of the biggest wins in program history by defeating the reigning ACC champions.
It wasn’t a coincidence either. In addition to the goal-line stands mentioned above, Duke’s defense handicapped Clemson in the first half. And on offense, Duke quarterback Riley Leonard put in an incredibly brave performance. Clemson’s aggressive defense dogged him all night and he was limited to just 175 passyards on 17 of 33 attempts.
But Leonard’s outstanding 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter finally gave Duke the lead. It was a phenomenal performance as Leonard somehow eluded Clemson linebacker Barrett Carter’s reach in a third-and-3 play.
Duke rushed for a total of 199 yards. Jordan Waters threw for 63 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries while Moore had 43 yards and a touchdown on eight tries. Moore’s touchdown gave the Blue Devils a 21-7 lead with 10:33 left, and Waters’ 36-yard sprint with 3:15 left was the icing on the cake for Duke’s tremendous surprise.
The win was Duke’s first win over Clemson since 2004 and the first win over a top-10 team since 1989 – back when Steve Spurrier was head coach.