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Cade Klubnik, Clemson football offense sputter in season-opening upset loss at Duke

The 2023 season opener for Clemson football took an unexpected turn as they suffered a 28-7 defeat at the hands of Duke, ending their five-game winning streak against the Blue Devils. This loss marked Clemson’s first to Duke since 2004.

Clemson kicked off the game with a new offensive strategy led by coordinator Garrett Riley and quarterback Cade Klubnik. Unfortunately, from the very beginning, the offense seemed out of sync. Their opening drive, consisting of five plays for only 11 yards, nearly ended in a third-down interception by Duke safety Jeremiah Lewis, who, however, failed to hold on to the ball.

As the game progressed, Clemson continued to struggle offensively. Klubnik made questionable throws into double coverage, found himself scrambling into sacks in the second quarter, and narrowly avoided interceptions on multiple occasions in the first half. The Tigers’ wide receivers had difficulty gaining separation, leading to a reliance on short screen passes. In the first half, Clemson punted on four of their six drives. Their troubles were further compounded in the red zone.

Even when Clemson managed to string together drives in the second half, they faltered when approaching the end zone. Two consecutive fumbles occurred inside the Duke 5-yard-line. The first, resulting from a mishandled handoff between Klubnik and running back Will Shipley, led to a Duke three-and-out. However, the second fumble, committed by running back Phil Mafah near the goal line, was recovered by Duke and returned to the Clemson 33, setting up a Duke touchdown that extended their lead to 21-7.

While Clemson’s defense kept them in the game, it did not display the dominance expected. They struggled against dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard, who rushed for 98 yards and passed for 175. Leonard managed to break free for a 44-yard touchdown run, escaping a near-sack by linebacker Barrett Carter and putting Duke in the lead during the third quarter. Although the defense limited the damage for most of the game, their overall performance was less than impressive, with all three of Duke’s touchdowns coming on the ground. Clemson only managed two tackles for loss, with one credited to linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and the other to cornerback Sheridan Jones. Trotter forced a fumble in the third quarter, which was recovered by Andrew Mukuba, but the offense failed to capitalize on the turnover.

Special teams played a role in Clemson’s performance as well. On a positive note, linebacker Wade Woodaz recovered a muffed punt by Duke’s Jalon Calhoun, giving Clemson’s offense an opportunity to take over at the Duke 18. This led to Clemson’s first touchdown of the season, a 2-yard pass to running back Will Shipley. However, Clemson also had its share of special teams blunders. In the second quarter, receiver Antonio Williams made the decision to field a punt that appeared destined for a touchback, resulting in a mere one-yard return to the Clemson 8-yard-line. The most glaring mistakes came in the form of two botched field goals. In the first quarter, freshman kicker Robert Gun III’s 41-yard attempt was blocked by Duke defensive end Wesley Williams, denying Clemson the opportunity to tie the game at 3. In the third quarter, when Clemson had a chance in the red zone, they were forced to attempt a 23-yard field goal, which was once again blocked by Duke, with the kick sailing low and wide left for a miss.

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