SYRACUSE, New York — Syracuse coach Scott Shafer gritted his teeth one more time. That big victory he and the Orange are desperate for will have to wait another week.
DeShaun Watson made sure Clemson stayed on track for a shot at the national championship, accumulating 461 total yards and accounting for three touchdowns to help the top-ranked Tigers hold off Syracuse 37-27 on Saturday.
The Orange forced two first-quarter fumbles and intercepted Watson once, but the sophomore made sure the Tigers (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference; No. 1 CFP) prevailed to keep their unblemished record intact.
Syracuse (3-7, 1-5) has now lost seven straight, among them a triple-overtime setback at Virginia, a 23-20 loss to Pitt, and a 34-24 loss to LSU.
"Win those three or four games and all of a sudden, we're way better than people thought we were supposed to be," the embattled Shafer said. "But we didn't. We came up short. Hopefully, people can see the process moving forward."
Watson threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 101 yards and another score in a game that was much closer than most thought it would be.
"We didn't think we were going to come up here and just walk through and pick up a big win," Watson said. "We had to earn it. They came out and were pushing us and played 'til the end. Glad to have this one and move on to the next."
The win gave the Tigers at least 10 victories for the fifth straight season and their first 10-0 start since they won their only national championship in 1981.
Syracuse fell to 1-10 against No. 1 teams.
"There are a bunch of fighters in that room," Shafer said. "We stay true to who we are, and that's a team that will continue to play until the last whistle. Disappointed in the loss, but proud of the fact that the kids played extremely hard."
Syracuse made a game of it from the start, forcing the early fumbles and repeatedly finding gaping holes in the Clemson defensive line with walk-on Zack Mahoney at quarterback in only his second career start. The Orange rushed for 242 yards and scored their three touchdowns on the ground against a team that had allowed only nine rushing scores.
Leading 31-17 at halftime, Clemson failed to score in the third quarter for the first time this season and the Orange closed to 31-24 on Mahoney's 14-yard run.
The Orange defense held Wayne Gallman in check as he managed 66 yards on 15 carries, boosting his season total to 1,043. His 14-yard run on fourth-and-2 early in the fourth quarter, though, proved key. It set up Greg Huegel's 31-yard field goal with 13:33 to play for a 34-24 lead.
The Orange closed to 34-27 on Cole Murphy's 24-yard field goal early in the fourth, but the Tigers came right back with Huegel's third field goal and then Watson worked more of his magic.
After Syracuse elected to punt on a fourth-and-8 play, the Orange never got the ball back over the final 5:57. Watson, with the help of three Syracuse penalties, guided the Tigers on a 13-play drive and the game ended with Clemson at the Orange 10.
"At the end of the day, a loss is a loss. We've got to come out with these wins," Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "All year it seems like it's just one play away."
Clemson appeared poised for another rout, scoring twice in the first two minutes.
Watson hit Charone Peake with a 64-yard pass on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage and Gallman scored from the 11 on the next play for a 7-0 lead after just 33 seconds.
Mahoney then fumbled the first play for the Orange, and Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd recovered at the Syracuse 23. Watson's 3-yard run gave the Tigers a 14-0 lead after just 1:59 of play.
"You can't spot the No. 1 team in the country 14 points in the first two minutes of the game," Shafer said. "A hard one to swallow because we were in a position where we could play and beat this team. We talked about if we could get it to a seven-point game our crowd would help us."
Mahoney, fifth on the depth chart in preseason, acquitted himself well in his debut in September, throwing for three TDs against then-No. 8 LSU in a 34-24 loss. He was just as good in this one despite some early jitters, finishing with 76 yards and two TDs rushing. He was 8 of 21 for 80 yards passing.
AP college football website: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org