CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei has yet to meet Syracuse passer Garrett Shrader.
Uiagalelei, though, sure does love Shrader's hard-nosed style, his accurate passes, and how much he takes on tacklers for the extra yard.
“I'm a fan of him,” Uiagalelei said. “I like that.”
Probably because it's what Uiagalelei has done this season for the No. 5 Tigers (7-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who face the 14th-ranked Orange (6-0, 3-0) on Saturday.
It's a showdown of the ACC's final two unbeatens, who've gotten there behind offensive leaders of similar, winning styles.
“Their offense has changed dramatically based off of his improvement,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said of Uiagalelei. "And it’s a testament to him. He’s a good spirit, a good person, and I’m glad for his success.”
Uiagalelei and Shrader are each averaging a tick over 237 yards passing per game this season, fourth and fifth among ACC passers. Shrader sits second in the league, completing 69% of his throws with 12 TDs and three interceptions.
Uiagalelei has completed 64% of his throws with 17 touchdowns (ranked only behind the 24 of North Carolina passer Drake Maye) and two picks.
Both are unafraid to run, relish it really, and don't mind the collision if it means they make a first down and keep the drive going. The two rank among the ACC's top 10 in rushing attempts, Shrader going for 78 rushes through six games with Uiagalelei, on average, right behind at 81 attempts through seven games.
“They want me to run the ball hard, be physical, get as many yards as I can,” Uiagalelei said.
Shrader, from Charlotte, North Carolina, had offers from plenty of powers known for offense — Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee among them — before picking Mississippi State.
Shrader started four games his freshman season under Bulldogs coach Joe Moorhead, where he became one of three freshman quarterbacks in the nation that year who threw for more than 1,000 yards and rushed for more than 500.
He played just four games the next season under new coach Mike Leach and left for Syracuse.
Shrader won the starting job in the first month last season, and threw for 1,444 yards and nine TDs. He also put together one of the school's most productive rushing seasons by a quarterback, finishing with 14 touchdowns and 781 yards. Still, the Orange finished 5-7 and 2-6 in the ACC after a late-season slump.
Shrader and Syracuse have been among the league's biggest surprises this season. Picked for last in the seven-team Atlantic Division, Syracuse is off to its best start since its last perfect regular season in 1987. Pull off a surprise at Death Valley and the Orange will have the inside track to a division title.
A big reason for the Orange's success is Shrader's steady leadership. He's got others he can count on to get the offense going.
“I think we’ve kind of built our identity, what we want to be moving forward," he said. “We’ve got guys that are emerging. We found out who can do some things, who we need to get the ball to the most and other guys that are capable and put them in situations within their wheelhouse to do what they’re good at.”
Clemson's Uiagalelei has a similar mindset built from adversity a year ago. Expected to easily slide into the starting role of his predecessor, NFL No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence, Uiagalelei was off-target and tentative as the Tigers came up short after six straight ACC crowns and College Football Playoff berths.
Vowing to slim down and improve his technique, Uiagalelei found the form that made him one of the country's top prep prospects in 2020. He's more productive with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions after throwing just nine scores with 10 picks in 2021.
Now, the Tigers, 4-3 at this point of the season a year back, can instead strengthen their grip on the division by winning a third game against an undefeated Atlantic Division opponent following earlier victories over No. 13 Wake Forest and No. 23 North Carolina State.
Uiagalelei “just has so much perseverance,” Clemson tailback Will Shipley said. "And I wouldn’t want to be next to anybody (else) as my quarterback.”
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