CLEMSON, S.C. – Fans cheered as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence escaped pressure and sped around the edge. They exclaimed as he tipped along the sideline. They gasped as he collided with Syracuse safety Evan Foster.
They groaned as he rolled slowly to his back. The loudest silence swept across Death Valley as fans feared the worst.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is a meticulous man. He scrutinizes every detail in the configuration, aesthetics and messaging of his program. When he decided that now was the appropriate time to promote Lawrence to starting quarterback over senior Kelly Bryant, he had to assess all possible outcomes.
TOUGH HIT: Clemson's Lawrence knocked out of game against Syracuse
Best-case scenario, Bryant would accept the demotion and gladly embrace a relief role. That did not happen, and Swinney watched the worst-case scenario unfold on the 45-yard line.
Lawrence suffered an apparent head injury with approximately five minutes remaining in the second quarter. He did not return.
Swinney could not call Kelly Bryant from the bullpen. He was not in the stadium. He may not have even been in the state. Two days after the demotion, Bryant decided to transfer.
If he assessed all outcomes, Swinney cannot call Bryant’s departure or Lawrence’s injury unintended consequences of his decision. He was forced to confront that decision directly.
He also was forced to confront his longstanding assertion that Clemson could win with former third-string quarterback Chase Brice. Brice completed three of his first five passes for four yards and an interception. But he steadied enough to direct a 94-yard, game-winning touchdown drive that included a gorgeous 20-yard pass for a fourth-down conversion.
The drive and the entire offense were propelled by running back Travis Etienne, who amassed 203 yards and three touchdowns. Clemson has continuously pressed snooze on his workload, but he is the eardrum-splitting alarm clock that woke Clemson from its worst nightmare.
Bryant would have smoothed the transition after Lawrence suffered the injury. He would have eased the nerves of everyone in Clemson orange and shredded Syracuse’s porous defense. His experience would have rescued the Tigers.
Just like it did Sept. 8 at Texas A&M.
Swinney inserted Lawrence to start the second half that night, but the offense sputtered through two three-and-outs. Swinney reinserted Bryant. He led two touchdown drives and salvaged a victory.
That certainty seemed faulty as Lawrence rolled in agony. Even before the injury, the offense had produced merely seven points and did not look drastically different than it would have with Bryant.
A resilient defense, a determined running back and an overwhelmed foe saved Swinney from a weekend of second-guessing, perhaps not in his own mind or his own program, but from the same analysts, fans and media members who praised his decision and condemned Bryant earlier this week.
Some fans delighted in the irony, which is even more repulsive. But with Lawrence’s status still uncertain, both wondered if Bryant's decision could be reversed.
He is still enrolled at Clemson. Technically, he could change his mind and rejoin the team. But Bryant reversing his decision would not make Swinney reverse his. Lawrence is injured. He is not broken.
And once Lawrence returned, Bryant would be in the same situation, because Swinney would confront another assertion — that he would make the same decision again.
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