No. 9 Clemson opened up the 2023 season in disastrous fashion.
The Tigers just could not get out of their own way in a mistake-filled 28-7 road loss to Duke. On a sequence of three consecutive second-half drives, Clemson drove the ball inside the Duke 10-yard line yet did not score a single point.
Duke was leading 13-7 early in the third quarter when the Tigers got to the 1-yard line, yet their drive concluded with a blocked 23-yard field goal. Clemson was pushed back by a false start and then a four-yard loss on first-down before an incomplete pass on second down and a six-yard run to the 4 on third down. With plenty of time left in the game, Dabo Swinney sent his field goal unit out, but Robert Gunn III’s chip shot kick was blocked. It was the second kick the freshman had blocked on the evening.
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 yet fumbled it back to the Blue Devils on a botched quarterback-running back exchange between Cade Klubnik and Will Shipley.
Things got even worse from there. Phil Mafah, on a first-and-goal run from the 1, fumbled and the loose ball bounced right into the arms of Duke’s Jaylen Stinson. He returned the fumble all the way to the Clemson 33, setting up a touchdown run from Jaquez Moore to put the Blue Devils ahead 21-7 with 10:33 to play.
It was a complete meltdown for Clemson in what was supposed to be a showcase of the program’s upgraded offense under new coordinator Garrett Riley. Instead, many of the offensive issues that plagued the Tigers in recent seasons were plain for all to see.
Clemson moved the ball, primarily on the ground with Shipley and Mafah (the two combined for 179 yards on 28 carries), but the passing game left a lot to be desired. Clemson’s only points of the game, a two-yard Shipley touchdown run that game the Tigers a 7-6 halftime lead, came off a Duke muffed punt.
Klubnik, Clemson’s prized quarterback recruit who pushed DJ Uiagalelei out the door to Oregon State, clearly has talent. He made a few impressive throws and also showed the consistent ability to evade pressure and pick up yards with his legs. But the group of receivers he’s working with did not inspire much confidence, a problem that has plagued this team the past two seasons.
Klubnik threw for only 209 yards on 43 attempts. He missed a few throws early, including a dropped interception by Duke on Clemson’s first series, but it just did not seem like Clemson’s receivers were able to get much separation. Klubnik averaged only 4.9 yards per attempt, and once the Tigers fell behind by two scores they just had no chance to get back in the game in the fourth quarter.
Antonio Williams and Beaux Collins led the way for Clemson, but those two combined for only 106 yards on 12 catches. No other wideout had more than two catches in the loss. And then in the final minutes as Clemson desperately tried to mount a comeback, a catchable pass deflected off the usually reliable Shipley’s hands and went right into the arms of Duke’s Dorian Mausi for an interception.
That turnover, Clemson’s third of the night, sealed the upset for the Blue Devils.
The collection of receiver talent was a stark contrast to the pass-catching prowess No. 8 Florida State — Clemson’s top competition in the ACC — put on display on Sunday night in a high-profile win over No. 5 LSU. Most notably, FSU got an incredible effort from Michigan State transfer Keon Coleman, who caught nine passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
Swinney has outright refused to utilize the transfer portal, and it’s hard not to connect the dots as other programs leave Swinney’s program in the dust.