Friedlander: Backup QB rallying to beat Syracuse to keep Playoff bid alive? It's déjà vu for Dabo Swinney, Tigers
It’s only fitting that Chase Brice was at Death Valley on Saturday.
Having already led his current team to a weeknight victory on Wednesday, the Appalachian State quarterback decided to take advantage of his rare weekend off and return to Clemson to see his former team play.
And watch history repeat itself.
It was on that same field in 2018 that Brice, then an untested redshirt freshman, came off the bench in relief of Trevor Lawrence and led the Tigers back from a 10-point 4th quarter deficit to an improbable win against Syracuse.
This time, Brice wasn’t in a position to help. But he did get to watch another young quarterback earn his own place in Clemson lore.
True freshman Cade Klubnik didn’t do anything spectacular after replacing struggling starter DJ Uiagalelei late in the 3rd quarter. He completed only 2 of his 4 passes for 19 yards while rushing for 11 yards on 6 carries.
His most meaningful contribution, other than a successful 2-point conversion pass to Joseph Ngata, was the kick in the pants his entry into the game provided in rallying the Tigers to a hauntingly familiar 31-21 win.
Dèjá vu all over again.
“Just excited to get my moment,” a euphoric Klubnik said afterward. “It was awesome — such a great environment today.”
Switching quarterbacks, especially to one with little meaningful college experience, might have seemed like a bold move for the coach of a team with ACC championship and playoff aspirations. Klubnik had thrown only 15 passes mostly in mop-up duty coming into the game.
Unlike Brice, who was thrust into action after Lawrence was injured, Klubnik’s entry was done by choice.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
With the Tigers trailing 21-10 and unable to get out of their way offensively, Dabo Swinney didn’t have much else to lose. So instead of watching his team continue to repeat the same mistakes, he pulled Uiagalelei after his 2nd interception and Clemson’s 4th turnover of the game, and rolled the dice.
And he came up a winner.
With the help of a couple of favorable calls, Klubnik led the Tigers to touchdowns on his first 2 drives before taking on a field goal that put the finishing touches on Tigers’ ACC-record 38th consecutive home win.
“DJ just didn’t have it today,” Swinney said in a televised interview on the field immediately after the game. “Cade came in and got it done.
“Sometimes Steph Curry goes 2-for-25. Your best player can sometimes have a bad day. He just got out of rhythm, made some bad plays and we needed a change. We showed we had that guy that can come in.”
Dabo Swinney: "Well sometimes, you know, Steph Curry goes 2-for-25."
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 22, 2022
Klubnick’s potential is hardly a revelation. He came to Clemson as the nation’s No. 1 quarterback prospect and began the season amid predictions that he would unseat Uiagalelei as the Tigers’ starter sooner than later.
In at least one sense, Saturday’s performance fulfilled that prophecy. If only temporarily.
While it might have helped earn Klubnick a few more opportunities as the season goes on, especially given Clemson’s schedule the rest of the way, Swinney was quick to quash any hint of an impending quarterback controversy.
“DJ’s our quarterback. There ain’t no question about that.” he said. “That’s our leader. You can write that down. DJ’s our guy. Now he has to play better and he will. But how about Cade Klubik coming in. What a great job.”
At 8-0 overall and 6-0 in the ACC, with wins over its top 4 challengers, Clemson all but wrapped up its 7th Atlantic Division title in the past 8 years with the win.
Its standing in the national polls isn’t as clear cut.
The Tigers dropped from No. 4 to No. 5 in last week’s rankings despite a road win against Florida State. Even though Syracuse came into the game at 6-0 and ranked 15th, there’s a good chance the voters will look upon Saturday’s performance equally as unfavorably.
At this point in the season, that doesn’t really matter.
No undefeated Power 5 conference champion has ever been left out of the College Football Playoff since the current form was adopted. So as long as Clemson continues to win, things are likely to work themselves out.
Just as they did in 2018, when Lawrence returned to the lineup after that great escape against Syracuse to lead the Tigers to a 15-0 record and a national championship.
It’s still a long shot for this team to run the table, unseat the likes of SEC powers Georgia and Tennessee, and bring home another national trophy.
But you never know.
As we learned Saturday at Death Valley, history has a funny way of repeating itself.