March 29, 2023

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Clemson’s offense again fades in a 31-14 Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee

Clemson’s long-awaited quarterback change didn’t make much difference in the Orange Bowl.

With DJ Uiagalelei out for Oregon State and standout freshman Kady Klopnik making his first career start, the Tigers moved the ball relatively well but fell short time after time once they got into Tennessee territory.

Clemson and Tennessee led by more than 50 in nine of their first 10 drives, but came away with only six points in that span. There was a failed fake field goal, three missed field goals, red zone clock mismanagement at the end of the half, and a turnover on touchdowns.

It was ugly all around for Klopnik and the Tigers, and that long list of fouls proved costly as Tennessee cruised to a 31-14 victory — the program’s biggest victory since winning the BCS National Championship in 1998.

Tennessee players Jaylen McCullough (L) and Roman Harrison (30) tackle Clemson quarterback Kid Klopnik at the Orange Bowl on December 30, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

While Clemson swung constantly, Tennessee was able to put the ball into the end zone behind Joe Melton’s arm. Milton Hendon backed up Hooker for the past two seasons but made his second start after Hooker suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Milton has a huge arm but has struggled with accuracy throughout his career. In this game, Melton was the best quarterback in the field. He threw a slew of impressive deep balls while also fitting throws into tight windows with speed for third down conversions. His touchdown pass to Bru McCoy opened the scoring late in the first quarter.

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And in the second half, Melton added two more touchdown passes. One of them came in the closing seconds of the third quarter to extend Tennessee’s lead to 21-6. And after Clemson finally struck a touchdown to make it 21-14 with 10:01 to play, Melton responded by finding Ramell Keaton behind the defense for 46 yards to put the score back in front 28-14.

Melton’s call to Keaton was Tennessee’s sure answer when Clemson seemed to have a glimmer of hope. The touchdown came just 1:27 after Clemson made the score to 21-14 on a Klopnik touchdown run. It took the wind out of Clemson’s sails and proved to be the dagger that capped a massive season for Tennessee.

Tennessee’s best season in 20 years

Tennessee has not won a major game since winning the national championship in 1998. In winning the Orange Bowl, Tennessee reached the 11-win mark for the first time since 2001.

It was a nice turnaround for a show mired in scandal just a few years ago. Coach Josh Heupel from UCF came along and made a quick hit and watched the wins pile up.

Tennessee has gone 18-8 in Hobble’s two seasons and has won 13 of its last 16 games. UT climbed to #1 during the regular season and was in the College Football Playoff picture through the month of November.

Although Hooker and several other top players will transfer to the NFL, there is still a host of talent that will return in 2023. This includes Melton, who will compete for the starting job with five-star freshman Niko Iamalieva, who is in Already on campus as an early enrolled.

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It’s hard not to be optimistic about the future of the Tennessee program—especially with the expansion of the playoffs in just a few short years. Being in the same division as Georgia is obviously quite a challenge, but there will be greater access to the National Championship once the stadium expands to 12 in 2024.

What’s next for Clemson?

On the Clemson side, it was a disappointing end to another volatile season. The Tigers struggled badly on offense in 2021 and the ACC Championship Series streaked its six years. Despite continuing disappointing performances on offense, Clemson is back at the top of the AFC this season, but it’s hard not to wonder about the overall trajectory of the program.

With the loss, Clemson finished 11-3. Prior to the past two seasons, Clemson had not had consecutive seasons with three or more losses since 2010 and 2011.

Klopnik is just a real rookie and his level of talent was very evident in Friday night’s game. But Clemson’s coaches also put a lot on his shoulders—and they did on a big stage of the New Year’s Six game. Klopnik finished with 54 pass attempts and 20 rushing attempts. He had his moments, but the insult as a whole seemed disjointed.

Dabo Swinney seems to have a promising young quarterback in his program, but it’s fair to wonder if his entire offensive approach needs a new set of eyes.