Clemson Football’s Disappointing Season Opener Against Duke
Clemson football’s highly anticipated 2023 season began with a surprising upset as they fell to Duke with a score of 28-7 on the road. This loss marked the end of Clemson’s five-game winning streak over the Blue Devils and was their first defeat against Duke since 2004.
Clemson unveiled a new offensive strategy under coordinator Garrett Riley, led by quarterback Cade Klubnik. Unfortunately, from their very first drive, the offense appeared unbalanced and out of sync. The opening drive, consisting of just five plays and covering 11 yards, nearly resulted in an interception by Duke safety Jeremiah Lewis. However, Lewis dropped the ball, sparing Clemson an early setback.
Throughout the game, Clemson’s offense faced numerous challenges. Klubnik made risky throws into double coverage, took unnecessary sacks, and narrowly avoided interceptions multiple times in the first half. The wide receivers had difficulty finding open space, forcing the Tigers to rely on short screens. This offensive struggle led to punts on four out of six first-half drives.
Red Zone Failures
One of Clemson’s most significant setbacks occurred in the red zone. Even when they managed to put together promising drives in the second half, they faltered when close to scoring. Back-to-back fumbles inside the Duke 5-yard-line were particularly costly. The first, resulting from a mishandled handoff between Klubnik and running back Will Shipley, was recovered by Duke, leading to a Blue Devils three-and-out. The second fumble, caused by running back Phil Mafah, was returned to the Clemson 33-yard-line, setting up a Duke touchdown that widened the gap to 21-7.
Clemson’s defense played a crucial role in keeping the game competitive, but it did not display the dominance expected. They faced challenges containing dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard, who gained 98 rushing yards and threw for 175 yards. Leonard’s 44-yard touchdown run after narrowly avoiding a sack by linebacker Barrett Carter put Duke ahead in the third quarter. While the defense limited damage for most of the game, it lacked overall inspiration, allowing all three of Duke’s touchdowns to be scored on the ground. Clemson managed just two tackles for loss, one by linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and another by cornerback Sheridan Jones. Trotter forced a fumble that was recovered by Mukuba in the third quarter, but the offense failed to capitalize on the turnover.
Special Teams Ups and Downs
Clemson’s special teams had moments of both success and failure. Linebacker Wade Woodaz recovered a muffed punt by Duke’s Jalon Calhoun, providing Clemson’s offense with a favorable starting position at the Duke 18-yard-line. Five plays later, Clemson scored its first touchdown of the season on a 2-yard swing pass to junior running back Will Shipley, marking a significant milestone for Shipley as his first receiving touchdown.
However, special teams also committed errors. In the second quarter, sophomore receiver Antonio Williams made the questionable decision to field a punt that appeared to be heading for a touchback, resulting in a meager one-yard return to the Clemson 8-yard-line.
The most significant special teams blunders came in the form of two botched field goals. In the first quarter, freshman kicker Robert Gun III attempted a 41-yard field goal, which was blocked by Duke’s Wesley Williams. This could have tied the game at 3-3. In the third quarter, Clemson had another opportunity in the red zone but was forced to attempt a 23-yard field goal. Unfortunately, Williams managed to get a hand on it, sending the ball wide left for a miss.
Clemson’s season-opening loss to Duke exposed significant challenges, particularly with their new offense, red zone efficiency, and defensive performance. Special teams showed moments of promise but also suffered critical errors. As the Tigers move forward in the 2023 season, addressing these issues will be essential to bounce back from this unexpected setback.