Clemson sputters again in a 31-14 Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee

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

DJ With Uyakaleli heading to Oregon State and freshman Kate Klubnick making his first career start, the Tigers moved the ball relatively well, but occasionally fumbled once they reached Tennessee territory.

Clemson drove to the 50 on nine of Tennessee’s first 10 drives, but came away with just six points over that stretch. There was a botched field goal, three missed field goals, mismanagement of the red zone clock at the end of the half and a turnover on downs.

It was ugly for Klubnick and the Tigers, and that long list of mistakes proved costly as Tennessee put together a 31-14 victory — the program’s largest bowl victory since winning the BCS national championship game in 1998.

Tennessee players Jaylen McCollough (left) and Roman Harrison (30) tackle Clemson quarterback Kate Klubnick during the Orange Bowl on December 30, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

As Clemson continued to punt, Tennessee was able to put the ball behind Joe Milton’s arm in the end zone. Milton backed up Hendon Hooker the last two seasons, but was making his second start following Hooker’s season-ending knee injury.

Milton has a big arm, but has struggled with accuracy throughout his career. In it, Milton became the best quarterback on the field. He delivers beautiful deep balls while fitting throws into tight windows with speed for third-down conversions. His touchdown pass to Brue McCoy opened the scoring late in the first quarter.

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In the second half, Milton added two more touchdown passes. One extended Tennessee’s lead to 21-6 in the closing seconds of the third quarter. Milton responded by finding Ramelle Keaton for a 46-yard touchdown run to go back up by two scores, 28-14, to make it 21-14 with 10:01 to play after Clemson finally punched in a touchdown.

The Milton-to-Keaton connection was a compelling response from Tennessee that seemed like a glimmer of hope for Clemson. The touchdown came 1:27 after Klubnick’s touchdown run made Clemson’s score 21-14. It took the wind out of Clemson’s sails and proved to be the dagger that capped a tremendous season for Tennessee.

Tennessee’s best season in 20 years

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

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a program that was mired in scandal a few years ago. Coach Josh Heubel arrived from UCF, installed a quick-strike offense and watched the wins pile up.

Tennessee is 18-8 in Hubel’s two seasons and has won 13 of its last 16 games. UT rose to No. 1 during the regular season and was in the College Football Playoff picture in November.

Even if Hooker and many other great players leave for the NFL, 2023 will have more talent coming back. That includes Milton, who will compete for the starting job with five-star freshman Niko Iamaleva, who is already on campus. Initial registration.

It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of Tennessee’s program — especially with the playoff stretch in a few years. Being in the same division as Georgia is obviously a big challenge, but once the playoff field expands to 12 in 2024, access to a national championship will be greater.

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What’s next for Clemson?

For Clemson, it was a disappointing end to another up-and-down season. The Tigers battled hard in 2021 and snapped their six-year ACC championship streak. Despite continued underperformance on offense, Clemson returned to the top of the ACC this season, but it’s hard to wonder about the program’s overall trajectory.

With the loss, Clemson finished 11-3. Clemson hasn’t had back-to-back seasons with three or more losses since the last two seasons, 2010 and 2011.

Klubnik is a true freshman and his skill level was very evident in Friday night’s game. But the Clemson coaches also put a lot on his shoulders — and did so on a big stage in the New Year’s Six bowl game. Klubnik finished with 54 pass attempts and 20 rush attempts. He had his moments, but overall the offense looked different.

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

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