As mentioned in today’s print edition, the matchup of South Carolina’s defense and Clemson’s offense will be a huge factor in Saturday’s game in Death Valley.
Can USC get pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, whether it’s with the regular front four or the “rabbits” package of four defensive ends that it uses on third downs? Can the Gamecocks get lined up against Chad Morris’ fast-paced scheme? Can they make open-field tackles on dangerous wide receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins?
USC will have defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, one of college football’s best players. That much is known. Clowney will play through the pain of a right foot injury, as he has for the past two months. How much will he impact the game? That remains to be seen.
USC’s defensive players and coaches talked at length Tuesday about the challenges of Clemson’s offense, and as usual, there wasn’t nearly enough room in the print product for all the interesting, or semi-interesting, things they had to say. So here you go …
** Linebacker Shaq Wilson knows he will find himself in pass coverage at times in this game, just as he did against Tennessee’s and Arkansas’ passing offenses.
He knows it is important for him to “just being focused on my keys, making sure I get good depth on my drops, making sure I get to the right wide receiver on my certain drops. Just be good with my eyes,” to not get fooled by Clemson’s misdirection.
Wilson said Boyd’s increased mobility this year is “just another headache for the defense. You’ve just got to be good with your rushing lanes and making sure that if he does break the pocket, you’re able to contain him.
“They do a good job of getting their players in open space, just trying to get athletes in one-on-one positions where they can make plays, trying to get the ball in their hands fast with screens. As a whole, we’ve just got to make sure we’ve got guys contained, with one guy inside, one guy outside, make sure we can bottle the guys up when they do get the ball.”
One of those players who Clemson likes to get in open space is Hopkins, who is 6-2 and 205 pounds, compared to 6-1 and 205 for Watkins. Hopkins is a junior, Watkins a sophomore.
“(Hopkins) has always done a good job over the years, being able to go up and get the ball at a high point,” Wilson said.
But since USC faced Morris’ offense last season, Wilson said, “You kind of know what to expect. You get your tendencies and what they like to do.”
** As a defensive tackle, Kelcy Quarles is well aware of the importance of getting pressure with just the front four in this game.
“I feel like (defensive line) coach (Brad) Lawing talks about it, that it’s so vital that we can rush with just four,” Quarles said. “If we can get that done, then we can have more help on the backside and in the secondary. I feel like that’s a great thing for us to be able to rush just four players. The big thing is going to be pursuit and staying in your gaps. They like to cut back a lot. I just feel like if we go out and play our game and match their tempo, we’ll be fine.”
From playing against Clemson’s offense last year, Quarles said he learned “it’s a little faster than on film. Just like the Wofford (option) game last week, there’s no way a scout team can match another team’s speed. Just playing against it, the biggest thing I can say is matching their speed and pursuit to the ball and making sure you tackle when you get to them.
“If we affect the quarterback, get in his face, get in the passing lanes, get our hands up, we can affect the quarterback a lot and affect a lot of the throws and help out the secondary a whole lot. Pressure is pressure. It really doesn’t matter where it comes from. I feel like if you get in his face and he feels your presence, I feel like you can knock his game off. It’s just going to take us applying pressure every down and getting to him.”
Quarles believes he is a better pass rusher than last season.
“I feel like this season during pass rush drills I’ve finally figured out what best I do, and implementing that in my game, it helps tremendously,” Quarles said. “Even if I don’t get to the quarterback or even get close, as long as I’m getting back there just staying in my passing lane, we’ve got Devin (Taylor) and Clowney coming off the end (to flush the quarterback out of the pocket), so we call (the tackles) the clean-up men. So I have no problem being a clean-up man.”
So what does Quarles do best?
“Just use power and just come off the ball as fast as I can,” he said.
** Taylor said the Clemson game is “one of those games where it could determine how you feel for the rest of the year.”
Taylor is fast, but he knows how quick this Clemson offense is.
“As far as practice goes, the coaches are always pushing the scout team to run plays faster,” Taylor said. “(The Tigers) have tremendous athletes and speed. Being able to match that is going to be a very difficult task, so we have to just kind of use the scout team a little bit to help up prepare. We know when the actual game comes, it’s going to be a little bit different.
“Being able to rush the quarterback with four people is going to help out the secondary and linebackers a lot. The more we do up front will help out everyone else. We’re just going to have to figure out a way to affect him regardless of whether we apply pressure or not because most quarterbacks sometimes handle pressure differently. Some of them are better with it. Some are worse.”
** Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said Clemson’s offense is “even faster this year than they were last year. I think Tajh is running the system very well. You look at them and you think they throw the ball a lot and they do, but they run the ball just as much as they throw it. They’re balanced.”
Clemson has run 503 times and thrown 400 times this season.
“If we don’t affect Tajh, then it’s going to be a long day,” Ward said. “We know. They probably know. We’ve got to find a way to affect the quarterback. If we can affect the quarterback, we’ll have a chance. If we don’t, it’ll be a long day. They’re a very, very good offense.”
Ward likes what he’s seen from Quarles this season as a pass rusher.
“I think he’s gotten better,” Ward said. “Kelcy plays high (in his stance) at times, but other than that, he’s made a lot of plays for us here lately. He missed a couple of games (with a shoulder injury), which probably set him back a little bit, but I’m proud of the way Kelcy’s playing.”
Ward said Clemson’s “entire skill position (groups), from the running back to the tight end to all three of the receivers, they’re guys that can really run. They adjust to the ball well downfield. I think they do a great job when they throw little screens to them of catching and running. They’re probably the best overall group of receivers and skill position (players) that we’ve faced.”
USC faced a fast-paced spread offense when Gus Malzahn was at Auburn, and the Gamecocks played those Tigers twice in 2010 and once last season – and lost all three times. USC also faced an up-tempo spread with Missouri this season. Morris is a Malzahn disciple, and Ward has seen some similarities in the Clemson offense this year and the Auburn offense of 2010.
“That’s the thing that I think is the difference between Clemson’s offense this year and last year, I think that they’re running Tajh more than they ever did, just like Malzahn did with Cam Newton,” Ward said. “He’s much more a part of the running threat, which means you’ve got to dedicate more people to the box, so I think that puts a lot more stress on defenses.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to this offense that we’re doing. That’s part of the conception that they’re trying to get you to do as a defender – look at all the moving parts. We’ve just got to make sure we put our eyes in the right place and execute the defense we called and we’ll be fine.”
Ward said before the season that he wanted to blitz more this season than USC did last season under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. But as it turned out, the Gamecocks were able to enjoy leaning mainly on their front four for pressure, as they did last season.
“I think a lot of times your mindset of what you would like to do, the game will dictate that,” Ward said. “There are games we played that we didn’t need to blitz because we got there with four. I probably should have blitzed more in the Tennessee game. I said that after the game. Because their offensive line was as good as advertised and we didn’t get as much pressure as we thought we could with four men.
“This game will dictate the same way. If (Clemson) is protecting us with four-man (rush), then we’ll have to figure out a way to get to the quarterback (by bringing more than four). If we don’t affect the quarterback, it’s going to be a long day for the Cocks.”
Ward said Tuesday that USC was “still tinkering” with free safety D.J. Swearinger’s role for this game. He played some cornerback against Tennessee and Arkansas.
“We’ll practice him at both spots (cornerback and free safety),” Ward said. “He’ll be moving around. He’ll play some nickel. He’ll play some safety. He’ll play some corner. How the game goes and the personnel that they’re in will dictate where he’s playing.”
** Linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said that while USC has played a fast-paced team this year in Missouri, Clemson is “probably a little bit faster than what we’ve seen in previous games. It’s going to be a challenge for us just to get lined up and tackle those guys in space.
“(Boyd) does a good job of escaping pressure. Our guys up front, when we do rush, we’re going to have to contain him and somebody’s always going to have to have their eyes on what he’s doing and where he is.”
** Secondary coach Grady Brown called Watkins and Hopkins “total package guys. They can catch a toss sweep and play tailback, return punts.”
They are the most athletic receivers USC has played this year, Brown said.
“Those guys at Tennessee (Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson) were good,” Brown said. “(Cobi Hamilton) from Arkansas was good. But these two guys are really good. It’s an opportunity that my guys have to take advantage of. It’s an exciting opportunity to go and play against these guys.”