No. 9 Clemson opened up the 2023 season in disastrous fashion.
The Tigers could not get out of their own way in a mistake-filled 28-7 road loss to Duke on Monday night in Durham, North Carolina. 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 4-yard loss on first down before an incomplete pass on second down and a 6-yard run to the 4 on third down. With plenty of time left in the game, head coach 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 and pave the way for an incredible victory for Duke.
Clemson's offensive woes continue
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 2-yard Shipley touchdown catch that gave 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 his longest completion of the night was just 21 yards. Once the Tigers fell behind by two scores, they 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 even when there are clear weaknesses on his roster, and it’s hard not to connect the dots as other programs leave Swinney’s program in the dust.
An incredible win for Duke
Duke's program was in rough shape when head coach Mike Elko arrived ahead of the 2022 season. In the previous two seasons, the Blue Devils went a combined 5-18 with 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 were a huge surprise as they went 9-4 and won the Military Bowl. And now they've started the season with one of the biggest wins in program history by knocking off the defending ACC champions.
It was no fluke, either. In addition to the aforementioned goal-line stands, Duke's defense stymied Clemson throughout the first half. And on offense, Duke quarterback Riley Leonard had an incredibly gutsy effort. Clemson's aggressive defense went after him all night, and he was limited to only 175 passing yards on 17-of-33 attempts.
But Leonard's highlight reel 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave Duke the lead for good. It was a phenomenal effort as Leonard somehow evaded the grasp of Clemson linebacker Barrett Carter on a third-and-3 play.
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 5, 2023
Duke ran for 199 yards in all. Jordan Waters pitched in 63 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries while Moore went for 43 yards and a score on eight attempts. Moore's touchdown put the Blue Devils up 21-7 with 10:33 to play and Waters' 36-yard scamper with 3:15 remaining was the icing on the cake for Duke's massive upset.
The victory was Duke's first over Clemson since 2004 and its first over a top-10 team since 1989 — back when Steve Spurrier was head coach.