South Carolina’s 33-28 win over Michigan in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl, courtesy of Dylan Thompson’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds left, was a fittingly impressive conclusion to an impressive three-year run for the Gamecocks.
As they finished 11-2 for the second consecutive year (their best record ever), USC concluded the 2010-12 period with a 31-9 record, including 8-7 against ranked teams (3-2 this season). Consider that in Steve Spurrier’s first five years, the Gamecocks were 35-28 and 7-15 against ranked teams.
The Gamecocks hung 426 yards on the nation’s 10th-ranked defense on Tuesday. They got 224 passing yards from Connor Shaw and two touchdowns, and 117 from Thompson and two touchdowns. They had completions of 31, 32, 37, 56 and 70 yards – to five different receivers. Shaw ran for 96 yards, with a long of 64. On the final drive, both Shaw and Thompson admirably eluded pressure.
In short, their offense, which had struggled for parts of this season, showed up in a big way, with big plays, in a big spot. In USC’s final four games this season against FBS teams, it gained 510, 383, 444 and 426 yards, though the first three of those games were against Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson, who didn’t have defenses as strong as Michigan’s.
This season began with a 17-13 win at Vanderbilt, in a game that USC trailed 13-10 with 11:26 left. The Gamecocks did not trail in the fourth quarter of any other nine wins until Tuesday, when they were down 28-27 before Ellington’s catch.
Consider the Gamecocks’ other wins this season. They never even trailed against East Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Wofford. UAB led them, but it was 3-0, and that lead was gone for good with 2:17 left in the first quarter. Clemson’s last lead was 14-10 and that disappeared with 11:48 left in the third quarter. Kentucky’s last lead was 17-14, which went away for good with 4:56 left in the third quarter.
USC hadn’t been pushed to the limit like this all season and emerged victorious. The Florida game was over after three quarters, when the Gators led 37-8. USC led LSU 14-13 until 6:37 remained in the game, so the Gamecocks were in that one late, just like the Vanderbilt and Michigan games, but couldn’t come out with the win.
To be fair, the Tennessee game was close, as USC emerged with a three-point win. But after Vanderbilt and besides Tennessee, these were USC’s other margins of victory before Tuesday’s five-point win: 38, 43, 21, 21, 28, 18, 17 and 10.
And so ends a season bookended by fourth quarter comeback victories. USC was ninth in the final AP poll last season – its highest final ranking ever and its first in the top 10. The Gamecocks entered Tuesday No. 11 and will finish in the top 10 again.
Spurrier said they hit eight of their 10 team goals this season, missing only the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship and the SEC’s overall title.
“I think it’s real good for us to win this way, coming from looking like it’s all over to scoring on the last drive,” Spurrier said. “We hadn’t done that, so it was really good for us. Defense cannot always carry the team. It was good the offense made some plays there at the end to help win the game. We’ve played a lot better offensively.”
Spurrier was happy with the year, but said, “It could have been better. It still could be better.”
As USC heads into the offseason and aims for higher accomplishments next season, here are some notes and quotes wrapping up Tuesday’s big win …
** USC should get its top two receivers, Ace Sanders and Ellington, back next season, presuming Ellington decides to continue playing football. Sanders had a career-best nine catches Tuesday, three better than his previous high, for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
His previous bests came in the regular season finale at Clemson, where he had 119 yards. Before that game, he had 320 yards all season, so he closed strong heading into his senior season.
Sanders also returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown on Tuesday and was named the bowl’s most valuable player.
USC will bring back every wide receiver who significantly contributed this season: Sanders, Ellington, Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones. Shaq Roland, a promising recruit, will be just a sophomore. But the loss of tight end Justice Cunningham is big, despite Rory Anderson being a capable replacement.
After Sanders’ performance Tuesday, Spurrier said Florida and Florida State didn’t go after him in the recruiting process.
“They passed on him and said he was too little,” Spurrier said. “But he can play football. That’s for sure.”
** Jadeveon Clowney’s big hit on Vincent Smith and forced fumble in the fourth quarter will go down in USC history as one of the most memorable moments from this 2010-12 run.
“He doesn’t hit that hard in practice,” Spurrier said. “We have a rule: Don’t clobber teammates. He’s got that one little slip move that (blockers) get nothing but air when they go out at him. I told him after the game, ‘I’m glad you hit the quarterback on that last play.’ That kid (Devin Gardner) can throw the ball 70, 75 yards. Who knows what could have happened with a bunch of guys jumping around for the ball.
“Jadeveon was tired in the first half. I don’t know if you sportswriters were watching him. Coach Lawing kept jerking him out and I jerked him out once. Finally, when the sun went down, it was amazing how cool it got. Jadeveon said he got some new life when the shade finally hit the ball field. He played a lot better when the shade came. If we come next year, let’s start at 2 o’clock.”
** So what’s the quarterback plan for next season?
“We tried to tell Connor, ‘It’s your game,’” Spurrier said. “And it was his game, but Dylan was going to play, and (Shaw) understood that. It worked out beautifully, as it turned out. No one knew it was going to turn out like this. We will go through the spring and we always have competition for every position.”
** Thompson had this to say about Clowney’s hit: “I saw it from our sideline, about where the safety level would be. It was crazy because I was watching his high school game when we were at Carolina and he was a senior and he made almost an identical hit against whoever they were playing that game on ESPN. It’s just unbelievable the stuff he can do. It’s like a switch. He can turn it on and it’s ‘I’m going to take over’ and he kind of does it.”
** Clowney and Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, who could meet again in the NFL, built a mutual respect for each other throughout the bowl game.
“After the game, I went up to him and said that he was one of the best defensive ends I have ever played against and he looked right in my eyes and said that I was one of the best tackles he’s ever played against,” Lewan said. “It’s a great compliment to have, but none of this matters because we didn’t win the damn game.”
Clowney had just four tackles, but two were for a loss and his hit was very impactful in more ways than one.
** Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and Clowney both talked at length after the game about Clowney’s hit.
“It was a stunt call,” Ward said. “I called a Cali, a blitz. I was going to bring (cornerback) Vic (Hampton) off the boundary. (Clowney) was supposed to stunt inside. Tight end never moved. (Clowney) starts outside (at his regular end spot) and he stunts into the C gap. Tight end never got out of his stance.”
Was it the most vicious hit Ward has ever seen?
“Totally,” Ward said. “I’ve ever seen. The young man’s been blessed with special talent and he has the knack of making the big play when you need it. He did it in the Tennessee game (with a strip sack late). He did it in the Clemson game. And of course he just did it in this ball game.
“Let me tell you now, that play (against Michigan) reminds me of a situation in practice last week on Wednesday, our Wednesday practice. Coach (Brad) Lawing and coach (Shawn) Elliott and coach Spurrier were messing with Clowney about how good (Lewan) was.
“They called the first play (in practice) and before (Corey Robinson), our offensive tackle, got out of his stance, (Clowney) was in the backfield. (Robinson) never got out of his stance. They motivated him. I think them thinking that the ball was short of the first down (on the previous play), and they gave them the first down, made him turn it up a notch.
“I didn’t have to (try to motivate Clowney before the game). Coach Lawing and them did. They were telling him (Lewan) had given up one sack all season and if he didn’t give up one this game to him, he would be the all-time not give up sack guy. (Lewan) had a little confidence about himself. I liked that about him. He was talking to Clowney all day. I could see him talking. That’s JD’s game. They’re both great players and I think both of them will be playing for a long time whenever they decide to go to the NFL.”
** Lewan did a nice job on Clowney, but that didn’t impact Ward’s decision to call the stunt with Clowney on that play.
“We were going to stunt him anyway,” Ward said. “That was based on the situation. I felt like the personnel grouping that was in, we needed to bring a zone pressure. Vic worked all week with coach Lawing on pass rush, so I wanted to bring Vic from the boundary and hope that they were going to play action pass, and actually they ran it, which was an added bonus. I figured Vic could beat the tight end off the back side edge (if Michigan passed).”
** What did Ward think when he saw the hit?
“Wow,” Ward said. “Because it was like a flash. His speed and quickness out of his stance is unbelievable. It was like two cars hitting. I promise you. It was a big bang. That’s the hardest hit I’ve seen in my coaching career. When he doesn’t want to be blocked, he can’t be blocked. That’s all I can tell you.”
“He has some special abilities. You saw that (while recruiting him). The only guy I’ve seen close to Clowney getting out of his stance in a pass-rush mode is Dwight Freeney and Corey Moore (at Virginia Tech). Corey Moore was great getting out of his stance. Clowney is probably better than both of them. He’s got a special ability. Clowney said his goal is to go to New York next year (for the Heisman Trophy ceremony) and I believe he’ll go.”
Does Ward think Clowney scares offensive players?
“I’d be scared if I played against him because I know he’s going inside, outside,” Ward said. “He can do it all.”
** What about Clowney being winded?
“We played a lot of plays,” Ward said. “When you play 44 plays (in the first half) and it’s 75 degrees, I’d be a little winded, too. And Clowney put on a little weight between the end of the season and the bowl game. I think he weighed about 273 and I think he played at about 265 during the season. And he understands that. It’s hard to run when your foot’s been bothering you, so we make him ride the bike a lot. He came through when he had to.”
** So should Clowney now have Ward’s nickname (Whammy), which he acquired for being a hard hitter in college?
“He’s going to get a better name than Whammy,” Ward said. “He hits harder than Whammy ever did.”
** Ward said he didn’t want to grade his performance in his first season as defensive coordinator.
“It’s not about me,” Ward said. “It’s about those players. They played hard for coach Ward. They believe in coach Ward. I believe in my coaching staff. They’re all great players. I’ll be more willing to grade myself after next season when I’ve got a lot of young players playing. When you play a lot of veteran players, you ought to be good. You should keep things simple and let your players do what they do best. I’m not a genius by any means, but I’m smart enough to know that if you’ve got good players, you let them play.”
Clowney had a funny response when told that a miscommunication led to him coming free on his big hit: “That ain’t my problem.”
The hit immediately reminded Clowney of last year’s Georgia game.
“I just said, ‘We’re back at Georgia,’” he said. “That same play, the same call, I made a bit hit on Aaron Murray for the touchdown that Melvin (Ingram) picked up. We were right back in that situation. I was like, ‘Dang, it happened all over. Repeat.’”
Has he ever hit anyone that hard?
“A couple times back in high school, but that was a big hit. I don’t even remember. I know I hit him, but everyone else said it looked worse than I could see.”
He didn’t know he knocked Smith’s helmet off.
“I was just looking for the ball. I was frustrated a lot during the game because they kept squaring me out and chipping on me and double-teaming me. But I always play like that, so it really doesn’t bother me.
“Every time I beat (Lewan) on an inside move – I beat him like three or four times on an inside move – the quarterback would step up or the guard would back in and chip. But he’s a good tackle. One of the top tackles I’ve faced.
“It was a matter of time (before I made a big play). I told (teammates), ‘Guys, I’m going to show them. I’m coming.’ I just told the guys, ‘Hang in there. We’re going to win this game. I’m coming. I’m going to make a big play.’”
Did Smith say anything after the hit?
“He didn’t say nothing. He just froze up and laid there like (Clowney cocks his head back, opens his mouth and rolls his eyes back, mimicking an unconscious person). He was out. I was laughing. I was laying on him and pushing his face and I’m trying to get the ball and run with it then.”
Clowney can’t answer the question teammates always ask him: How does he do it?
“All I’ve got to say is I’m blessed. All the guys sit there and tell me, ‘Boy, you are blessed.’ That’s all they say. They say, ‘Where do you get that from?’ I said, ‘I can’t even tell you.’”
He said Lewan actually wasn’t talking that much during the game.
“He wasn’t really chirping. I guess he figured he didn’t want to get me going. But if somebody talks junk to me, I take that serious. I just flip out sometimes. I just try to take over.”
But Clowney and Lewan did have a nice exchange when Lewan left briefly with cramps in the third quarter.
“I told him, ‘Don’t go to no sideline. I don’t want the second string. I want the first string. Come on back here fast. You hurry up, so we can get back on, one-on-one.’ He said, ‘I’ll be back, big boy.’ I said, ‘I hope so.’”
Clowney wasn’t worried about the spot that gave Michigan a first down on the play before his hit.
“I told the guys, ‘Don’t worry about it. There’s eight minutes left in the game. A lot of ball left. I’m going to make a big play.’”
After the hit, some of his teammates who had smart phones on the sideline (presumably injured or redshirting guys who Clowney didn’t want to out) showed him a replay of his hit, and after he saw it, he was surprised Smith was able to return to the game.
“I said, ‘Oh, he’s back? I’ve got to hit him again.’ He’s a tough dude. When his helmet popped off, I hit him with my helmet on his face. They pulled it up on the sideline. It was already on YouTube. The other players (pulled it up), but if coach hears about that, they’re going to be in some trouble.”
Clowney liked how it cooled off in the second half.
“The first half, it was real hot and we came back the second half and it cooled off and we turned it up on defense.”
As Clowney looked toward next season, he said, “I think I can be a lot better next year. I can work on my run stopping and getting my hands up and get stronger than I was this year. I’m going to be a lot better next year. Y’all just watch and see.”
And what about that trip to New York?
“Everybody is talking about it, but my goal is to be better than I was and go with the No. 1 pick in the draft. That’s one of my goals, to go No. 1 pick. The New York stuff doesn’t bother me.”