CLEMSON, S.C. — The lasting image from Death Valley on Saturday afternoon will almost certainly be a bewildered Dabo Swinney, standing on the Clemson sideline, with one finger held up into the air.
Cade Klubnik needed just one yard. Maybe even a few inches.
But on third-and-1 with Clemson vs. Florida State in overtime and the Tigers needing a touchdown and extra point to avoid falling to the No. 4 Seminoles, Klubnik threw a pass to wide receiver Adam Randall. The sophomore quarterback had been given a run-pass option on the play call and chose the pass instead of handing the ball off for an obvious run to keep the Tigers alive.
Florida State survives Clemson in overtime
Randall caught the pass, but lost yardage as three Seminoles converged on him. Moments later, Florida State players sprinted across the field, having slayed the Clemson giant for the first time since 2014. Fans in Death Valley were shocked as they headed for the exits. And peeved.
On that Clemson 3rd-and-1 in OT, it was an option play.
Klubnik choose the pass instead of hand off, and Dabo couldn’t believe it. He yelled “One yard!” pic.twitter.com/fJxThRHwLm
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) September 23, 2023
This one was largely on their coaches, and they knew it.
“At the end there, the third-and-1, just situationally, that’s a job we’ve got to do better as coaches there and help our quarterback,” Swinney said. “The ball’s gotta get handed off. That’s just built into what we do, but we’ve got to make sure that we lock that and that that’s not an option. So that’s on us. We expect him to hand the ball off right there. … But that’s where we can do better as coaches.”
Indeed, on an afternoon when the struggling Tigers actually played well enough to upset a top-five team that Swinney believes can go all the way this season, Clemson’s 31-24 loss will ultimately be remembered for Swinney, his staff and the series of questionable late-game decisions they made.
In addition to calling an option play on third-and-1, Clemson did not spike the ball at the end of regulation in order to attempt a Hail Mary, despite having about six seconds left on the clock.
The Tigers also opted to attempt a potential game-winning 29-yard field goal with about two minutes to play in the fourth quarter behind a formerly-retired kicker in Jonathan Weitz, who, just a week ago, was living by the beach in Charleston, S.C. as an online graduate student.
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On not spiking the ball, Swinney essentially admitted the Tigers weren’t prepared.
“We (considered it) for a second, but we didn’t have it organized enough to get it done,” he said. “It just happened fast.”
And on asking Weitz to kick the field goal — the result of what many assumed was a conscious decision to go conservative in the red zone — Swinney defended offensive coordinator Garrett Riley’s play-calling.
“It really wasn’t (us) playing for the field goal,” Swinney said of Riley’s decision to call a quarterback draw on third-and-11 from the FSU 13, ending with Klubnik picking up just one yard.
“Garrett really thought that play was gonna pop. They were playing ‘Saw Blitz’ and we really thought it was a great call and that it was gonna pop. … I don’t have a problem with that call. We thought it was going to hit.”
To be fair, the Tigers proved Saturday that they’ve made noticeable progress from the debacle at Duke in the season opener. Klubnik played his best game of the season, going 25-of-38 for 283 yards and a touchdown as wide receiver Tyler Brown and tight end Jake Briningstool proved they are legitimate deep threats in the passing game. Aside from the decision to rush just three defenders in the first half against FSU quarterback Jordan Travis, Clemson’s defense was commendable, holding the Seminoles to just 22 yards on the ground and a four-of-13 third-down conversion rate.
A few of Clemson’s miscues on Saturday were also beyond Swinney’s control. The most blatant came late in the third quarter, when running back Phil Mafah missed a pass protection assignment and FSU linebacker Kalen DeLoach blitzed Klubnik untouched for a sack and 15-yard loss. After DeLoach drilled Klubnik, the ball popped out and Klubnik fumbled. DeLoach then scooped it up and took it 56 yards the other way for a touchdown that tied the game at 24.
A SCOOP AND SCORE FOR THE SEMINOLES 😱
Things are tied up in Death Valley with a quarter remaining between No. 4 Florida State and Clemson.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 23, 2023
“They ran a great blitz,” Klubnik said. “I honestly never really saw him. My eyes were to the left.”
But Saturday was stunning nonetheless, given the standard Swinney has set for himself.
Swinney, he of two national championships and six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances from 2015-20, has historically dominated high-pressure situations. He won his first national title on a touchdown play at the (literal) last second of the 2016 season. He hoisted his second trophy two years later by clobbering an Alabama team behind a true freshman quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Love him or hate him, he’s a smart football coach.
Swinney is within his rights to point out that Clemson is 2-2, as he said Saturday, because of the way the Tigers have given up 36 points on turnovers this season. Clemson has struggled with ball security and it’s come back to haunt them in serious ways.
But even with the scoop and score, Clemson was still in a position to win this game before coaching miscues ran their course. Even after the Weitz missed field goal, a Hail Mary would have been worth a shot. And even after FSU went ahead in overtime, a better play call might have made the difference.
These are not mistakes Swinney usually makes. Love him or hate him, he is a smart football coach.
But here Clemson is: 0-2 in ACC play for the first time since 2010 and needing a little bit of hope.
“That honestly is probably as tough a loss as I have ever been a part of. You win one like that, it’s the top of the world. You lose one like that, you’re sick to your stomach,” Swinney said. “It breaks my heart where we are. I wish I could say why. All I know is we’ve got a lot of good days ahead. And I believe that.”
(Photo: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)