Clemson’s Troubled Start to 2023 Season: Upset Loss to Duke Unveils Challenges

Clemson vs Duke
Clemson football's 2023| Image credit: clemsontigers

DURHAM, N.C. — Clemson’s highly anticipated 2023 football season got off to a rocky start as the No. 9 Tigers suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of Duke, losing 28-7 on the road. This loss marked the end of Clemson’s five-game winning streak against the Blue Devils, with their last defeat to Duke dating back to 2004.

Under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and quarterback Cade Klubnik, Clemson’s offensive unit displayed signs of imbalance right from the opening drive. Their initial five-play, 11-yard possession almost ended in disaster with a near interception by Duke safety Jeremiah Lewis on third down, but Lewis couldn’t hold onto the ball.

From that point onward, Clemson’s offense appeared out of sync. Klubnik attempted risky throws into double coverage early in the game, and he was caught scrambling into a sack in the second quarter. Furthermore, he narrowly escaped two potential interceptions in the first half. The Tigers’ wide receivers struggled to find separation, leading them to rely heavily on short screen passes during the first half, resulting in punts on four out of six drives.

However, their most significant shortcomings were evident in the red zone.

Even when Clemson managed to piece together promising drives in the second half, they faltered near the goal line. The Tigers fumbled on consecutive drives inside the Duke 5-yard-line. The first fumble occurred when Klubnik and running back Will Shipley mishandled a handoff, which Duke recovered, ultimately resulting in a Blue Devils three-and-out. The second fumble, courtesy of running back Phil Mafah near the goal line, was returned to the Clemson 33-yard-line, setting up a Duke touchdown that extended their lead to 21-7.

Clemson’s Defense Struggles to Contain Riley Leonard
While Clemson’s defense managed to keep the Tigers in the game, it didn’t exhibit dominance. The defense faced a dual-threat quarterback in Riley Leonard, who accumulated 98 rushing yards and 175 passing yards. Leonard broke free for a 44-yard touchdown run after narrowly escaping a sack attempt by linebacker Barrett Carter, propelling Duke ahead in the third quarter.

While the defense limited damage for most of the game, their overall performance left much to be desired. All three of Duke’s touchdowns came on the ground. Clemson managed just two tackles for loss, one from linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and another from cornerback Sheridan Jones. Trotter forced a fumble in the third quarter, which was recovered by Mukuba, but unfortunately, the offense couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.

Special Teams Mishaps on Both Sides
With Clemson’s offense struggling to reach the red zone, special teams played a critical role. Linebacker Wade Woodaz recovered a muffed punt by Duke’s Jalon Calhoun, a Greenville native, giving Klubnik and the offense excellent field position at the Duke 18-yard-line.

Five plays later, Clemson secured its first touchdown of the season on a 2-yard swing pass to junior running back Will Shipley, marking Shipley’s first career receiving touchdown.

Despite this special teams highlight, Clemson had its share of errors in this phase of the game. In the second quarter, sophomore receiver Antonio Williams made an ill-advised decision to field a punt that appeared destined for a touchback, resulting in a mere one-yard return to the Clemson 8-yard-line.

However, the most glaring special teams blunders were the two botched field goals. Freshman kicker Robert Gun III attempted his first in the first quarter, and Duke defensive end Wesley Williams blocked the 41-yard attempt that would have leveled the game at 3. In the third quarter, when Clemson finally had a chance in the red zone, they were forced to settle for another field goal attempt. Williams once again got a hand on the 23-yard kick, causing it to sail low and wide left, resulting in a miss.


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