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Harsh Review

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CLEMSON -- Our first question to Dabo Swinney this week might be asking about the health and availability of Brent Venables.

Venables, upon questioning his own call that Syracuse exploited with a deep-ball touchdown in the third quarter, said he was going to "go home and punch myself in the face."

Venables' assessment after the game was one of many pieces of evidence that Clemson's staff wasn't walking around handing out lollipops for a difficult, disjointed showing against lowly Syracuse.

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The most ironic part of Swinney objecting to reporters' questions, saying they were too negative, was that the questions were following up on Swinney's own descriptions of his team's effort as "sloppy."

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The coach had just been asked about his decision to call the fake punt in the second quarter, had just replied that he "felt like we were playing a little tight and needed to loosen up a little bit," and then took exception when a reporter asked about the energy level of his team.

Through six games Clemson ranks 10th nationally in total defense.
Through six games Clemson ranks 10th nationally in total defense. (AP)

All in all, not really a big deal that Swinney tries to steer the tenor of a postgame press conference. He's allowed to do that, just as reporters are allowed to ask whatever they want to ask.

But this is a bit of a trend in the midst of those rare times Clemson plays well below its standards: The head coach takes issue with negativity (real or imagined) from the outside, then spends the rest of the week delivering harsh, and very real, criticism behind closed doors.

Though Swinney elects to talk only so much about some of the reasons Syracuse was down six points in the third quarter with two chances to take the lead before Clemson's defense supplied the pivotal momentum shift, others painted a pretty clear picture of why things were much harder than they should've been.

Travis Etienne, who took himself out early in the third quarter when Clemson's running game was finally getting going, said he learned he has to eat more than Frosted Flakes in the morning to be his full football self instead of the dehydrated guy who missed most of the third quarter.

Trevor Lawrence, uncharacteristically off in the passing game, said the team's energy "wasn't what it needed to be at the beginning of the game." He said it started with him.

"Some of our drives were stalling out and it was kind of frustrating, and you could kind of sense it a little bit," he said. "But we just kept encouraging one another, stayed in the game and just kept trying to attack and trying to get something going. Eventually we put together some drives.

"It's just, everything's not going to go perfect every game. Overall I think we had a really good week of prep, a good week of practice. It wasn't really that. I just think we didn't play our best game today and that's going to happen sometimes. But we'll definitely learn from it and it'll be good for us in the long run. So I think it's a good teaching moment for us."

Tony Elliott took away the same lesson, saying the team didn't come out with its standard sense of urgency.

"Our guys have done a great job up to this point. Things have been, I wouldn't say easy for them, but kind of smooth. So from my perspective and my mindset, I welcome the adversity. Because it's an opportunity for us to humble ourselves and say: 'Look, nobody's going to lay down for us. We've got to stay committed. We can't shortcut anything, and we've got to bring that right mindset and energy every single day in practice and every single game, or you're going to have days like this.'"

On the offensive side, Lawrence's job probably would've been a lot easier had the running game been more consistent. The Tigers struggled to move the Orange off the ball enough for the backs to pick up big chunks between the tackles like Liberty and Duke did to Syracuse in its previous two games.

On defense, Venables noted that the only players who started in 2019 (Tyler Davis, Jamie Skalski, Derion Kendrick) were held with injuries.

Veteran safety Nolan Turner has a team-high three interceptions.
Veteran safety Nolan Turner has a team-high three interceptions. (US Presswire)

Still, the Orange's success running the ball and throwing it (both quick game and the aforementioned throw over the head of Joseph Charleston) nagged him.

"I thought we just weren't quite as sharp," Venables said. "We gave up a couple of stretch runs in the first half, and then our leverage on their quick-game stuff was not very good at all. We made it easy on them, just kind of giving them a little bit of hope in the first half. And then we didn't respond to the blocked punt. We made a couple of good plays and then we let them run it in.

"We're better than that."

That's the part no one disagrees with.

And the part Clemson's players and coaches are going to hear a lot about this week.

They're much harder on themselves than anyone else is from the outside.

Hopefully Venables wasn't too hard on himself with the punch to the face.

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