Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Chapel Fowler

Missing the point: Clemson struggles to score in Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Too little and too late.

That’s how Clemson’s season ended late Friday night at the Orange Bowl: with Cade Klubnik quarterbacking the offense to countless opportunities against Tennessee but everyone from him to his coaches to his kicker failing to convert on them.

The Tigers’ offensive struggles were the main culprit in a 31-14 loss to the Volunteers, who in a battle of one-time College Football Playoff contenders looked faster and smarter and sharper than the reigning ACC champions.

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III was excellent in relief of injured starter Hendon Hooker, completing 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns despite two of his top receivers opting out of the contest.

UT receiver Squirrel White also starred with nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown as the Volunteers finished the season 11-2 and full of excitement for the future of the program under second-year coach Josh Heupel.

For Clemson (11-3), it was quite the fizzle after the Tigers debuted at No. 4 in the first CFP Top 25 ranking of the season with an 8-0 record. After reaching that mark, the Tigers went 3-3 over their last six games, still smarting from the self-inflicted errors that led to key losses to Notre Dame, South Carolina and, here on Friday, Tennessee.

It’s pretty hard to finish with 484 yards of total offense, 101 total plays, 34 first downs and 10 trips into your opponent’s territory while finishing with just 14 points, but Clemson made it look easy with blown assignments and questionable play calls and poor clock management at Hard Rock Stadium.

Klubnik had 371 total yards and a touchdown in his first career starter after unseating the since-transferred DJ Uiagalelei in the ACC title game, but at times on Friday he looked human, like a 19-year-old true freshman quarterback with clear talent still figuring some stuff out.

Klubnik was 30 of 54 for 320 yards and brought Clemson within 21-14 early in the fourth quarter, but he was also running for his life most of the night and threw an essentially game-ending interception with the Tigers trailing by two touchdowns with 7 minutes remaining.

Clemson’s defense had its moments but ultimately faltered against the Volunteers, who entered the game ranked first nationally in total offense and scoring offense. After getting within 21-14, Clemson blew a coverage assignment that allowed Milton to hit a wide-open wide receiver for a 46-yard touchdown — a dagger if there ever was one.


That followed a truly bizarre first half in which Clemson had 273 yards of total offense, 19 first downs and 36 plays on Tennessee’s side of the field … yet just three points.

It was an impressively inefficient 30 minutes, one made possible by kicker B.T. Potter missing field goals from 55, 49 and 42 yards — he’d only missed three all season entering the Orange Bowl — and Klubnik taking a bad sack to end the first half.

Trailing 14-3, Clemson had a second and 15 at Tennessee’s 18-yard line with 20 seconds left and no timeouts. Klubnik ran for five yards on second down before taking off again on third down with about 10 seconds left and getting stuffed for a gain of two.

That poor decision left at least three, if not seven, points on the board for Clemson, and Swinney wasn’t happy. He met Klubnik on the field after the clock hit 0:00 and stayed in his ear the entire way off the field into the locker room.

Klubnik’s ill-timed scramble marked the seventh time that a Clemson first-half drive ended in Tennessee’s territory — but the sixth time such a drive produced zero points. The Tigers’ only first-half scoring came from Potter, who just snuck in a 31-yard field goal in the second quarter.

Clemson’s offense averaged a strong 5.2 yards per play and got good production from a number of lesser utilized skill position players such as wide receivers Joseph Ngata and Cole Turner. But Potter’s struggles as well as team-wide inefficiency in the red zone negated that.

Outside of Potter’s misses and Klubnik’s half-ending mistake, Clemson also had a fake field goal stuffed on its opening drive and punted once after crossing the 50.

Tennessee capitalized on those mistakes — as well as an inexperienced Clemson secondary that was down starting cornerback Sheridan Jones — and made its money in the passing game.

Milton, a Michigan transfer playing in place of injured starter Hendon Hooker, opened Friday’s scoring with a 22-yard dime to receiver Bru McCoy (7-0) and later connected with White for 50 yards to set up a short Jabari Small rushing touchdown (14-0).

Potter rounded back into form with a 40-yard field goal to open the third quarter scoring and bring Clemson within a possession of Tennessee (14-6).

A Tigers defense playing without two NFL-bound starters — defensive end Myles Murphy and linebacker Trenton Simpson — played valiantly, too, at one point forcing four consecutive punts against the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense.

But the offense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

Clemson dropped to 0 for 2 on fourth downs when Tennessee held Shipley to 1 yard on a fourth-and-2 rush attempt past midfield, and Milton hit White for a touchdown minutes later to put Tennessee up 21-6 to end the third quarter.

And then, life. Klubnik led Clemson 12 plays and 71 yards into the end zone on the next drive, scoring his first touchdown on a four-yard read option run and handing off to Shipley for an ensuing two-point conversion run to bring the game to 21-14.

Clemson backed up Tennessee into a third-and-9 on the next possession, but Milton — as he did all night — had an answer. He hung in the pocket for a 13-yard conversion and then connected with receiver Ramel Keyton for a 46-yard touchdown.

Thanks to a blown coverage assignment, no Clemson defensive back was within 10 yards of Keyton when he caught the pass and waltzed into the end zone to put Tennessee up 28-14.

Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath added a 32-yard insurance field goal in the fourth quarter.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.