David HaleESPN staff writer4 minutes to read
DURHAM, N.C. — Monday was judgment night Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney expect the jury to deliver a scathing verdict.
Clemson came to Durham ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll and was the favorite to beat a Duke team that had not knocked off a top-10 program since 1989.
The Tigers left Durham battered, bludgeoned and utterly bewildered after a 28-7 loss that saw Clemson stumble over four drives inside the red zone that ended in no points.
“This is the strangest game I’ve ever been involved in,” Sweeney said. “I’m beat. I’ve had my ass kicked. But this is the weirdest game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Clemson had 12 more first downs, 48 more receiving yards, and both threw and rushed for 200 yards — a statistic, Swinney pointed out afterward, that tied with the Tigers’ all-time 108-0 record before Monday night.
Clemson’s downfall was a woeful red zone performance that saw two short field goals blocked and two fumbles by the offense after a first-and-goal at the 1.
In all, Clemson turned the ball over three times.
“What I just saw is almost indescribable,” Sweeney said. “It’s very frustrating when you have a lot of chances. … It’s routine stuff. The basics. The basics. The basic, basic stuff.”
Quarterback Kade Klubnik threw for 209 yards and rushed for 34 more, but a scramble on fourth-and-7 midway through the fourth quarter ended in a turnover on downs when Klubnik slid off the mark. A flag was thrown for targeting on the play, but officials still awarded possession to Duke, which Swinney admitted afterward was the correct decision.
Swinney said the play would be a learning experience for Klubnik, who was making his second career start at Clemson after the Tigers’ Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee at the end of the 2022 season.
“He’s a brave kid, a tough competitor, and I’m glad we got him,” Swinney said. “Because I know how he’ll react.”
Swinney said he thinks the same about the rest of his team, which he said won individual matches but lost due to mental errors.
“We have no right to win,” he said. “You have to earn it. We had the opportunity to take control of that game on multiple occasions but we didn’t. That’s how it’s done.”
Clemson lost its opener for the second time in three years and Monday’s loss was its worst in the ACC since 2014, but Swinney said none of that changes his expectations for this year’s team.
“People will see the score and judge this team,” Swinney said. “I love this football team and I see a lot of opportunity here. … A lot of people will probably give up on us and get rid of us. But I’m not throwing this team away. We’re going to do it a step back.”
That sentiment was echoed by Klubnik, who insisted that a dreadful start to the 2023 season will only make the end that much better.
“This is going to be a nice story,” Klubnik said. “That’s just my dream and the dreams of our team is to fight back. That’s a decision we have to make. Are we going to fight back or are we going to let this stand? Ultimately our goal is to play in the “We’ve played 15 games and finished 14-1. “We can’t go unbeaten now, but there are a lot of games left.”
Klubnik noted that Clemson suffered a stunning loss to Pittsburgh in the 2016 season and went on to win the national championship.
But this loss seemed even more disappointing. While Swinney said he thought his team showed enough reasons for optimism, this was the Tigers’ third loss in their past four games — something that hadn’t happened since 2011. Meanwhile, the new offense with Klubnik at the helm and the new team often seemed Coordinator Garrett Riley’s calling plays are as off as the units that have drawn so much frustration from fans over the past two seasons with DJ Uiagalelei at QB.
But Sweeney didn’t see it that way. He said that the final result looked much worse than the actual performance on the field, and said that his expectations for this team had not changed because of the loss.
“The good news is if there’s any good news, you haven’t seen a terrible football team out there,” Swinney said. “You’ve seen a bad result. But you’ve never seen a bad football team that can’t play the game.”
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