The last man to beat Clemson

As he took a deep breath and readied to swing his right foot, Cole Murphy didn’t know for sure that he was kicking for the win. He didn’t know for sure that by sending the ball through the Carrier Dome uprights, he would catapult Syracuse to a massive upset over the defending national champion.

And he certainly didn’t know, even as his strike sailed straight and true, that between that moment 818 days ago and at the very least until this coming Monday night, no one else would get to experience what it is like to beat Clemson in the regular season.

Yes, Alabama has defeated Clemson in the intervening two years and three months, but outside of a singular, juggernaut of a dynasty, no one else has done what Syracuse managed in 2017 — and certainly no individual has done to the Tigers what Murphy managed. The last time Clemson lost a regular-season game, thanks in part to Murphy’s calm fourth quarter field goal for the Orange, Tom Brady had only just turned 40. The San Francisco 49ers were one of the weakest teams in the NFC. LeBron James was a Cleveland Cavalier.

Heading into Monday’s national championship showdown against LSU, since that loss to Alabama, Dabo Swinney’s squad are nursing a 29-game win streak, in which they have accumulated a ridiculous points scored/allowed record of 1,298-358.

Clemson has veered from being underrated (with some claiming this season that their weekly beat-ups of Atlantic Coast Conference foes should not have led to their continued presence at the top of the national polls) to seeming untouchable at times, like smashing up Alabama in last season’s title game, or a thrilling and mightily impressive fightback against Ohio State in the CFB Playoff semifinals on Dec. 28.

They can be beaten; it just hasn’t happened in a heck of a long time. According to Murphy, Syracuse was able to unseat Swinney’s visiting team back in 2017 for the simplest of reasons: because they believed they could.

“The whole week building up to the game felt different,” Murphy, 23, told me in a telephone conversation. “We didn’t care about ranking or reputation. We weren’t scared of anything, and we knew we had the ability to take the game to them.”

When something is rare, it takes on a special place in our hearts. For Murphy, who, since graduating at the end of that season, has spent time with the Arizona Cardinals in the National Football League and the San Diego Fleet of the ill-fated Alliance of American Football, it was as memorable as any day he has had in the sport.

His 30-yarder with 9:43 left on the game clock broke a 24-24 tie and proved to be the last score of the game. That would have been enough for a special celebration, but there were sentimental reasons involved, too.

Murphy, from Santa Clarita, Calif., hadn’t seen his older brother Ryan — who lives in Omaha, Neb. — for more than five years. When early in the season a group including Ryan, Murphy’s parents Mike and Diane, his uncle Rick and some family friends planned a trip to see him play, there was some momentary hesitation as to whether the Clemson fixture was the right one. After all, the previous season’s game resulted in a 54-0 victory for the Tigers.

“Come,” Murphy told them, figuring that regardless of the outcome it would be a packed stadium, a fine atmosphere and one of the more significant occasions of his senior season.

“Of course, I didn’t know we were going to win the game, but there was a really good feeling about the place and I felt that one way or another it was going to be a big day,” he said. “I’m glad it worked out. Any time you share a big win like that with your teammates it is an incredible feeling. It lit up the town and really made people care deeply about the football team again. But personally, having my family there to be part of the whole thing made it perfect.”

Kicking proved to be critical on the day. Handling those duties for Clemson was Alex Spence, who Murphy had known since he was 15, the pair becoming friends at a junior kicking camp. Murphy did everything asked of him, sliding home two field goals and three extra points. Spence, however, badly pulled a pair of attempts from 35 and 38 yards. Ultimately, it was the difference.

And so we saw a Clemson loss, something that was a major surprise at the time and has since become a collector’s item in college football. Apart from a late September scare at North Carolina that ended 21-20, Swinney’s squad were not troubled at any time during the 2019 regular season.

“I never thought that they wouldn’t lose again, but when you look at that team you can see how they’ve managed to put together a run,” Murphy added. “They had Kelly Bryant and Travis Etienne when we played them; now they have Trevor Lawrence and a bunch of awesome players. Dabo Swinney has put together this culture — you have to play an unbelievable game to beat them.”

Murphy will make sure he is in front of a television on Monday night, but he doesn’t get a whole lot of time for TV these days. He lives north of Los Angeles, but every second day makes a six-hour round trip drive to Carlsbad, north of San Diego, to train with former Super Bowl-winning John Carney and his stable of elite kickers.

It means 4 a.m. wake up calls and often not returning until the evening, especially if he gets snarled in the brutal northbound traffic heading up the coast. He’s hoping for another shot in the NFL, having been cut by the Cardinals in May when they needed to sign a punter.

On the days he’s not driving south, he does his own training and also spends time trying to produce stars of the future, having carved out a solid niche coaching high school prospects on their kicking game … including top-rated 2021 standout John Bryan.

Depending on the outcome of Monday night’s game, Murphy and his teammates, which included quarterback Eric Dungey and rusher Dontae Strickland, will retain the distinction of having been the last group to beat Clemson.

Maybe the streak ends right there at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans; maybe the streak continues onwards until goodness knows when. Either way, for Murphy, the day Syracuse stood tall will remain as it is now: unforgettable.