DURHAM, N.C. — It was a night of reckoning for Clemson on Monday, and coach Dabo Swinney is bracing for a harsh verdict.
Entering Durham ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll, Clemson was widely expected to triumph over a Duke team that hadn’t defeated a top-10 program since 1989.
However, the Tigers departed Durham in a state of disarray, reeling from a perplexing 28-7 loss. Clemson’s struggles were epitomized by their four failed attempts to score within the red zone, a baffling performance that left Swinney bewildered.
“That’s the strangest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Swinney confessed. “I’ve experienced losses, I’ve had my fair share of defeats, but this was something else.”
In terms of statistics, Clemson outpaced Duke in several categories, amassing 12 more first downs, 48 additional yards, and achieving both 200 passing and rushing yards—a statistical combination that had previously resulted in a pristine 108-0 record for the Tigers.
However, Clemson’s downfall was its abysmal red zone execution, with two blocked short field goals and two fumbles following first-and-goal situations at the 1-yard line. In total, Clemson committed three turnovers.
Swinney expressed his frustration, saying, “It’s almost impossible to describe what I just witnessed. It’s incredibly frustrating when you have so many opportunities slip away… it’s the basics, the fundamentals, the simplest things.”
Quarterback Cade Klubnik threw for 209 yards and added 34 rushing yards to his tally. However, his fourth-quarter scramble on fourth-and-7 culminated in a turnover on downs when he fell short of the marker. Although a targeting penalty was called, officials awarded possession to Duke—a decision Swinney conceded was accurate.
Swinney viewed this incident as a learning opportunity for Klubnik, who was making only his second career start for Clemson following their Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee at the end of the 2022 season.
“He’s a gritty kid, a fierce competitor, and I’m glad we have him,” Swinney commented. “I know how he’s going to respond.”
Swinney maintained his belief in the team’s resilience, emphasizing that they lost due to mental errors despite winning individual matchups.
“We’re not entitled to victory,” he asserted. “You have to earn it. We had multiple chances to seize control of the game, and we didn’t. That’s how you get defeated.”
Clemson’s loss in the season opener marked the second such occurrence in three years and the most significant ACC loss since 2014. Nevertheless, Swinney remained resolute in his expectations for the team.
“People will look at the score and pass judgment on this team,” Swinney said. “I love this football team, and I see a lot of potential here… Some may give up on us, but I’m not giving up on this team. We will bounce back.”
Klubnik echoed Swinney’s sentiments, believing that the challenging start to the 2023 season would only enhance the eventual success story.
“This will be a triumphant tale,” Klubnik declared. “It’s the dream that I have, and our team shares the dream of responding. It’s a decision we must make. Will we bounce back, or will we let this linger? Our ultimate goal is to play 15 games and finish 14-1. Undefeated is no longer an option, but there are plenty of games left.”
Klubnik pointed out that Clemson suffered a shocking loss to Pittsburgh in the 2016 season and still went on to win the national championship.
Nonetheless, this loss felt particularly frustrating. While Swinney believed the final score did not accurately reflect their on-field performance, it marked the Tigers’ third loss in their past four games, a feat not seen since 2011. Additionally, the revamped offense, led by Klubnik and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, seemed to struggle, reminiscent of the frustrations faced by fans in the previous two seasons with DJ Uiagalelei as quarterback.
Swinney, however, maintained a different perspective. He emphasized that the final score did not reflect a terrible football team but rather a disappointing outcome.
“The silver lining, if there is one, is that you didn’t witness a terrible football team out there,” Swinney concluded. “You saw a poor result, but not a team incapable of playing the game.”