DURHAM, N.C. — Monday was judgement night for Clemson, and coach Dabo Swinney expects the jury will deliver a scathing verdict.
Clemson arrived in Durham ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll and was an overwhelming favorite to beat a Duke team that hadn’t toppled a top-10 program since 1989.
The Tigers left Durham battered, bludgeoned and utterly baffled after a 28-7 loss that saw Clemson stumble through four drives inside the red zone that ended without points.
“That’s the weirdest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Swinney said. “I’ve been beat. I’ve had my butt kicked. But that’s the strangest game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Clemson had 12 more first downs, 48 more yards, and both threw and rushed for 200 yards — a stat, Swinney noted afterward, that had correlated to a 108-0 all-time record for the Tigers before Monday night.
The downfall for Clemson was a woeful red-zone performance that saw two short field goals blocked and two fumbles by the offense following a first-and-goal at the 1.
In all, Clemson turned the ball over three times.
“It’s almost indescribable what I just saw,” Swinney said. “It’s incredibly frustrating when you had so much opportunity. … It’s routine stuff. The basics. The fundamentals. Basic, basic stuff.”
Quarterback Cade Klubnik threw for 209 yards and rushed for 34 more, but a scramble on fourth-and-7 midway through the fourth quarter ended with a turnover on downs when Klubnik slid short of the marker. A flag was thrown for targeting on the play, but officials still awarded possession to Duke, which Swinney admitted afterward was the correct call.
Swinney said the play would be a learning experience for Klubnik, who was making his second career start for Clemson after the Tigers’ Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee at the end of the 2022 season.
“He’s a gritty kid, a tough competitor, and I’m glad we’ve got him,” Swinney said. “Because I know how he’s gonna respond.”
Swinney said he believed the same about the rest of his team, which he said won individual matchups but lost on mental mistakes.
“We’re not entitled to win,” he said. “You’ve got to go earn it. We had an opportunity to get control of that game on multiple occasions and we just didn’t. That’s how you get beat.”
Clemson lost its opener for the second time in three years and Monday was its worst ACC loss since 2014, but Swinney said none of that changes his expectations for this year’s team.
“People are going to 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 are probably going to give up on us and throw us away. But I ain’t throwing this team away. We’re going to bounce back.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Klubnik, who insisted the dreadful start to the 2023 season will only serve to make the ending that much better.
“This is just going to be such a sweet story,” Klubnik said. “That’s just the dream that I have and the dreams that our team has is to respond. That’s a decision we’ve got to make. Are we going to respond or are we going to let this linger? Ultimately our goal is to play in 15 games and finish 14-1. We can’t go undefeated now, but there’s a lot of games left.”
Klubnik noted that Clemson suffered a stunning loss to Pittsburgh in the 2016 season and still went on to win the national championship.
This loss, however, seemed more frustrating. While Swinney said he thought his team showed ample reasons for optimism, it marked the Tigers’ third loss in their past four games — something that hadn’t happened since 2011. Meanwhile, the new-look offense with Klubnik at the helm and new coordinator Garrett Riley calling plays often looked as stunted as the units that engendered so much frustration from fans over the past two seasons with DJ Uiagalelei at QB.
Swinney didn’t see it that way, however. He said the final score looked far worse than the actual performance on the field, and he said his expectations for this team haven’t changed because of the loss.
“The good news is, if there is any good news, you didn’t see a horrible football team out there,” Swinney said. “You saw a bad result. But you didn’t see a bad football team that can’t play the game.”