In beating Clemson four straight times, South Carolina has out-scored the Tigers 124-54. That’s an average margin of 17.5 points. Saturday night, the margin was 10 (27-17). The previous three years’ margins: 17, 22 and 21.
Next year, USC will try to beat Clemson in five straight meetings for the first time in the history of their rivalry, which now numbers 110 games, dates to 1896 and is led 65-41-4 by the Tigers. (The longest winning streak for either side in the series is seven by Clemson from 1934-40.)
Consider that the only other time USC beat Clemson in four straight years, 1951-54, the Gamecocks won 20-0, 6-0, 14-7 and 13-8 – for a combined score of 53-15 and an average margin of 9.5 points.
In short, the Gamecocks are more dominant in the rivalry now than they’ve ever been. Even in 1968-70, which was their only previous three-game winning streak, their victories were 7-3, 27-13 and 38-32. That’s a combined score of 72-48 and an average margin of eight points.
“The history ain’t really got nothing to do with anybody that’s here now,” said spur outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman. “We’re trying to start our own history. Whatever happened before we got here, we threw that out the window and we wanted to come in and start our own tradition here and I think we did that.”
Yes, they did it Saturday night because of a poised performance by backup quarterback Dylan Thompson. But they also got another dominant showing from their defense against a prolific Clemson offense.
Last season, USC held Clemson to 13 points and 153 yards, both season lows. This season, USC held Clemson to 17 points and 328 yards. Clemson had scored at least 37 points in every game this season since getting 26 in the opener against Auburn. The Tigers’ 328 yards were their second-lowest of the season, behind 295 in a win over Virginia Tech.
As the Gamecocks wait until next Sunday to learn their bowl destination, here’s a look at how their defense shut down Clemson again, along with a bunch of other notes from a victory that gave USC its third ever (and second straight) 10-win season …
** “I’ve been blessed to be able to coach some great guys,” said USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who might now be one of the five finalists for the Broyles Award (best assistant coach in college football) when those are announced Monday.
“We thought we had a good game plan going in, to try to get to (quarterback) Tajh (Boyd, who was sacked six times). We felt like we had studied their protection enough to where we knew we had some guys on their offensive line that we thought we could run some (twist and stunt) games on that we thought we could give (Boyd) a chance to make him move his feet. We knew going into the game that if he didn’t get his first read, he was going to take off and run. You saw it early, and he kind of hurt us a little bit off scrambles.”
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who still has another year of college football (and a possible run at the Heisman Trophy) left before he is a NFL millionaire and perhaps the first overall pick in the draft, had 4½ sacks on Saturday, the most he’s had in any football game ever.
“I challenged Jadeveon (before the game),” Ward said. “I actually kind of misled him a little bit. I told him that Melvin (Ingram) sacked Tajh six times last year. He took it as a challenge. You’ve got to find out what motivates your players, so he tried to get six. He knows now that (Ingram) didn’t have six.”
** Clemson went 85 yards for a touchdown on its second drive and 75 yards for a touchdown on its third drive. The Tigers basically did nothing after that. On the 85-yard drive, Clemson went 4 for 4 on third downs. In the rest of the game, Clemson was 1 of 8.
“We kind of settled down,” Ward said. “We were real emotional early and we missed some tackles. You can tell that when your team comes out emotional, the little things show up. Well, we missed tackles early. We were in position to make plays. Even the balls they completed, the deep balls, we were right there to make the play. We knew going into the game that if we could limit their big plays, we would have a chance.”
Said Clowney: “We gave up too many third downs on that (85-yard touchdown drive). We said we can’t do that if we’re going to win this game.”
** Especially in the second half, USC slowed down Clemson’s tempo. Clemson had just 19 snaps in the second half.
“That goes back to: If you play good on first down, it puts them behind the sticks,” Ward said. “Now they just can’t get in a rhythm. That’s what we talked about all week: We wanted to break the rhythm. If they get five or six plays (in a drive), that’s fine. But we didn’t want to have the 16 plays that they had on the (85-yard) drive. That offense is built for rhythm, and so we tried to do a good job of breaking their rhythm.”
Here were Clemson’s first-and-10 plays in the second half when the game was still in doubt …
First drive: Ellington one-yard run (no first down after that)
Second drive: Boyd 38-yard pass to Brown, Ellington 12-yard run, Ellington one-yard run (no first down after that)
Third drive: Boyd six-yard run, Boyd incomplete pass (no first down after that)
Fourth drive: Boyd sacked for loss of nine (no first down after that)
** So how has USC handled Clemson so well the past two years?
“I love the ACC,” Ward said. “I coached at Virginia Tech for seven years. But I think our style of football is a little bit different in the Southeastern Conference. So I think we play a lot more physical football. I think when you play the schedule that we play and you get to this game at the end of the season, I think we’re battle-tested.”
** Clemson’s two best receivers, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, combined for just five catches and 80 yards.
“We had some coverages where we were going to double them, because we saw on film that when Tajh didn’t get his initial read that he’d take the ball down and run,” Ward said. “That’s what we prepared for. We called some coverages early to take both of them out of the game. We doubled both of them at times and put (free safety) D.J. (Swearinger) one-on-one in the slot. We felt like he could handle the slot guy. We’d take our two safeties and one would cut to (Watkins) and the other one would cut to (Hopkins). I think that hurt Tajh in his read initially, which gave us time to get there.”
** And got there USC did. The Gamecocks had six sacks of Boyd this year, compared to five last year, when Clowney had two sacks. Clowney must have conveniently forgotten that Ingram also had two in the 2011 game, not six. Does Ward lie to his players often to motivate them?
“I don’t think I lie to them,” Ward said with a smile. “I think I mislead them.”
** So in two seasons – and there is still one game left in his sophomore year – Clowney has 33½ tackles for loss (21½ this year) and 21 sacks (13 this year). He already has smashed the single-season school sack record (10). And he now has broken the single-season tackles for loss record as well (19½). The career tackles for loss record is 54½ and the career sacks record is 29.
When Ward told Clowney about Ingram’s alleged six-game game against Clemson last year, “I told him I was coming in to try to at least get four or five sacks this game,” Clowney said.
Clowney had some pointed comments about the USC-Clemson rivalry.
“We want to let them know that we own them for the last four years now,” he said. “I don’t know how it feels to lose to Clemson. I’m not going to know how it feels, either, because we ain’t losing to them as long as I’m here.
“Some guys from Rock Hill (Clowney’s hometown) went to Clemson we just told them that every time we played them, we’re going to try to beat y’all almost every time.”
Clowney said it was “a big statement” for USC to win by 10 points Saturday despite not having quarterback Connor Shaw or running back Marcus Lattimore.
“For me, it’s the ACC versus the SEC,” he said. “Everybody knows where the most physical ball comes out, the SEC, and we came out there and tried to be really physical and push them around a little bit, show them who’s tough.”
How was Clowney able to get in one-on-one situations so often Saturday?
“Coach (Brad) Lawing (the defensive line coach) came in with a game plan,” Clowney said. “Early in the game, we were seeing whether the offensive line was playing to me or not, and he moved me around and had me stand up. I can beat one person.”
Clowney said he didn’t expect it to be so easy to pressure Boyd.
“I thought I was going to have a lot more chip (blocking) with the backs to the tight end (side), but they really tried to roll out away from me most of the time,” he said. “The other end was getting pulled up and I was coming off the edge.”
Fittingly, Clowney had a sack on the game’s final play.
“I told coach, ‘I need to get one more before this game’s over with, so let me go put it down. I’m going to come off the ball full speed and try to get it,’” Clowney said. “He rolled out and I got him.”
But Clowney hesitated to say that this was the best game of his life.
“I don’t know about all that,” he said. “I just had the most sacks (of my life). I probably could’ve done a lot more than what I did tonight.”
** Holloman had some interesting comments about something that happened before the game (a speech by Swearinger) and something that was supposed to happen after (a Gatorade bath for Spurrier to celebrate his school-record 65th win).
“(Swearinger) just told us to live this day like it’s the last day, there’s no tomorrow and come out and play like there’s no tomorrow, and just to cherish the opportunity that we have,” Holloman said. “He told us to think about the players that we played with, the ones that that didn’t make it to this level or didn’t make it to this night and think about Marcus and Connor, guys that wanted to be out there with us and weren’t able to play. He just told us to take advantage of this opportunity and we did tonight.”
As for the postgame celebration, Holloman said, “We planned a Gatorade bath, but the defense was on the field at the end of the game, so we didn’t get to get that. Maybe we’ll get (Spurrier) at practice or something.”
** Here are some comments from Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris on Clowney …
“I thought we did a pretty good job the first half with him. In the second half was when he speed-rushed. We were sliding our front into him and making him move on us. We were putting two guys on him. That’s the way he’s played all year long. It wasn’t anything we didn’t anticipate. He was going to come. I thought (left tackle) Brandon (Thomas) did a good job on him in the first half and he got us there at the end.
“That was one thing you looked at, when you put two on Clowney, you single up on the other side, too. We gave up a couple, especially in a key quick-game situation to start the second half. Opening drive, we gave up a sack on Tajh in a quick-game protection, which never should have happened, by getting beat. That was something, when you try to double one, you single someone else. That was a concern going in, was our offensive line matched up with their defensive front and try to control them. I thought we did that for the first half because we were effective running the football. And you start the second half out, we open up with a run, you go to a quick game and next thing you know we’re sacked. So you get out of your game plan when that happens.”
“I think he’s one of the best players in the country. I said that from when I met with (reporters) Monday. I still think that. He makes his mind up, that’s what he wants to do and you get him in a passing situation, there’s not too many guys that can block him on-on-one.”
** Thompson is a devout Christian, and when he was asked a question to start the postgame press conference about his 20-yard run on a draw on third down and 19 from the Clemson 26, he politely said he wanted to say something else first.
“When I first found out I was starting this game (on Thanksgiving), I just immediately put full focus on God,” he said. “The verse I read, and I have to read it right now, Pslam 100, verse 3: ‘Know that the Lord himself is God. It is he is who has made us and not we ourselves. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.’ That was my encouragement this week – I’m His. It’s a rivalry, yes, but I’m God’s.”
So was he nervous when he found out was he was starting?
“I wasn’t nervous at all to be honest with you,” he said.
That had a lot to do with him getting all the reps in practice last week.
“That’s huge,” Thompson said. “I think anybody will tell you, the more reps you get, the more comfortable you are, just seeing what they play to certain formations. It’s a big deal when you get a lot of reps.”
Thompson knows it was huge that USC had the ball for 23:19 in the second half.
“Coming into the game, that was our goal, to keep their offense off the field, and I think we did a good job of that,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in a shootout. They’ve proven all year that they can score points, but at the same time, I think our defense is the best in the country. I honestly do. We just have full confidence in them.”
He continues to be impressed by Clowney.
“I guess the most comparable guy I watch play to him is the guy from the 49ers, Aldon Smith,” Thompson said. “It’s almost like guys just don’t have a chance. That guy (Clowney), he’s just a freak. There’s nobody you can simulate for him in practice. He shows it on the field.”
Saturday was yet another example of a player (Thompson) stepping in when things didn’t go as planned for USC.
“When guys go down, the next guy’s got to be ready,” Thompson said. “I think that’s happened here last year, this year, and (Saturday) it was my opportunity.”
Thompson has been friends with Lattimore since they were in high school.
“He texted me (before the game) and the text was: ‘Remember who you play for. Ball out,’” Thompson said. “We always say that before the games. That was encouraging.”
By “who you play for,” Lattimore meant God. Lattimore is religious as well.
** This might be hard for you to believe, but Ace Sanders never had a 100-yard receiving game in his career before Saturday’s six catches for 119 yards. He also had six catches against Vanderbilt in 2010. His previous high for yards was 79 against Tennessee this year.
Said Sanders: “I just told Dylan, ‘I have your back man. If you ever need an outlet, just throw me the ball. I’ll try my best to get open and make plays after the catch.’”
Sanders thinks this was a statement game for USC’s offense. Its 444 yards ranked behind 528 against East Carolina, 510 against Tennessee and 501 against Alabama-Birmingham this year.
“We wanted to stay on the field,” Sanders said. “During the whole season, we were going three-and-out, three-and-out. We wanted to show people that our offense is not just dependant on our defense, that we can actually play on our side of the ball, too. I think we did a good job of that. We’ve been in that situation ourselves before, where our defense just had to keep going back on the field. It was just good for a change to see that happen to the opponent.”