SYRACUSE — Syracuse University football coach Dino Babers compared his team’s 63-20 loss last Saturday at Maryland to a heavyweight boxer getting knocked out, and he now hopes the Orange can lift itself off the mat and recover for its most anticipated bout in decades tonight.
SU will host top-ranked defending national champion Clemson (2-0 overall) at 7:30 tonight in front of a sold-out crowd at the Carrier Dome to kick off its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule with a nationally televised clash on ABC.
The much-hyped home opener will be played in front of a capacity crowd of more than 49,057 fans, as SU athletic director John Wildhack confirmed Thursday, marking the ninth sellout in the venue’s 39-year history and the first since the 1998 season opener against Tennessee.
The Orange (1-1) dropped from both national Top 25 polls after last week’s nonconference road setback to the Terrapins after entering Babers’ fourth season as a ranked unit for the first time in 21 years. Despite each of the last two matchups being decided by four points or less — including SU’s stunning 2017 upset of then-No. 2 Clemson in its most recent trip to the Dome — the Tigers opened Friday as a 28-point favorite.
“If you’ve got something in you, you’re going to respond,” Babers said.
“If you’ve ever been knocked out, when you wake up, the blues are blues, the reds are reds, and everything seems clearer than you’ve ever had it before, it’s like rebooting your entire computer,” he added. “I’m not saying go do this to see how it feels, but it’s really kind of eye-opening. It’s like being knocked out and then you wake up, so we’re going to see how we do. Maybe we reboot it and everything is OK, we’re going to have to wait and see.”
Clemson has continued its dominance under coach Dabo Swinney to begin the season, led by a juggernaut offense engineered by sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence and junior running back Travis Etienne, each of whom are highly regarded NFL prospects and Heisman Trophy candidates.
Lawrence made his first career start against SU last season and has thrown 32 touchdowns passes to seven interceptions since, while Etienne has produced a 9.2 yards per carry average on 28 attempts through Clemson’s first two games. The Tigers possess the nation’s longest win streak at 17 games and have posted an overall record of 57-4 since the start of the 2015 season.
The Orange, meanwhile, followed its first true road shutout since 1991 in a victory over Liberty to begin the season by surrendering 42 points in the first half last week, the most in Babers’ four-year tenure.
SU senior running back Moe Neal used terms such as reality check, wake-up call, and humbling experience when describing last Saturday’s setback.
“Like coach always says, don’t let them beat you twice,” SU quarterback Tommy DeVito said. “We’ve got to have a positive mindset moving forward. You’ve just got to shake it off and move on to the next one.”
He later added: “Everyone has been talking about this (Clemson) game since it was booked on the schedule, and to be able to get those two games done and to finally be able to focus on this, it makes the elephant in the room go away.”
Orange fans are hopeful of a potential upset based on recent history that included SU’s shocking victory over Clemson on Oct. 13, 2017.
Last year, SU held Clemson to its lowest point total of the season during a 27-23 loss at Death Valley, and the Tigers needed a touchdown run by Etienne in the final minute of the game to secure the victory.
The Orange is one of just three teams to beat the Tigers since the start of 2015 along with Pittsburgh and Alabama, the latter of which knocked off Clemson twice in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
“I think this is a totally different situation,” Babers said. “They’ve changed up and done some different things, their personnel is a lot different. ... They are so good on offense now that you have a limited time in the game to hit them, and if you don’t keep pace with that offense, the game is over. You need to hit them just right. It’s Buster Douglas versus Mike Tyson and if you don’t hit them with the uppercut, you’re going to get knocked out.”