CLEMSON – There were the usual suspects Saturday night culpable in defeat for Clemson: a defensive front that failed to generate pressure, a hapless secondary that could neither tackle nor cover, Jadeveon Clowney playing like he should be invited to New York for the Heisman presentation.
But there were also surprise performers Saturday: USC backup quarterback Dylan Thompson played like a better version of Mike Glennon, strafing the Clemson defense. There was Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris surprising with some very curious strategic decisions. There was Tajh Boyd playing more like the 2011 version than the 2012 version. (See: back-foot thrown interceptions).
What remained a common thread in Clemson’s fourth straight loss to South Carolina is the Gamecocks again dominated Clemson on both lines of scrimmage. The SEC has separated itself from the rest of the country through defensive line play and we saw that show up again Saturday.
SC was so dominant up front it was able to beat Clemson on the road with its No. 2 quarterback with its No. 2 and No. 3 tailbacks. Think about that.
10. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has done many good things in his time at Clemson. His game plan/play calling Saturday was not one of those things.
10a. South Carolina players and coaches were stunned Morris elected to try to block Jadeveon Clowney one on one. So were we media hacks.
Morris has been stubborn when it comes to preferring not to double-team pass rushers. He let Gifford Timothy often handle Auburn’s Corey Lemonier earlier this year. It worked – at times. But that unwillingness – and lack of adjustments – backfield in a big way Saturday as Clowney changed the game with 4.5 sacks – a Memorial Stadium record. Clowney is a different animal that requires a different strategy.
10b. I picked Clemson to win this game but I hedged by saying if Clowney was healthy enough to offer an Aldon Smith-vs.-Gabe Carimi performance (See: Monday Football last week) then that changed everything.Clowney did just that. He ran around and through left tackle Brandon Thomas and he also line up inside on occasion and easily beat Clemson guards. Clowney is the best defensive player in the country and is a 2013 Heisman Trophy candidate.
9. The other curious thing about Morris’ game plan: DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins combined for five touches (Hopkins had two drops). The quick passing game, particularly with Watkins, has been a big part of the Clemson offense and it was absent Saturday. Clemson had nothing easy in the passing game, yes. South Carolina played more aggressive coverage and had pressure. But Clemson has called plenty of screens, short passes and even had Watkins involved in the run game more this year at times. Clemson got away from some of its offensive identity.
9a. One of the great mysteries of 2012 is what happened to Watkins? He just simply does not look as explosive, he does not look like the same player. This guy was a first-team true freshman All-American a year ago. Only two other accomplished that: Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson.
8. Clemson was carrying the flag for the embattled ACC Saturday.
Dabo Swinney was disgusted that there were three two-loss teams ranked above one-loss Florida State and Clemson entering the weekend. Jimbo Fisher hated on the BCS computers. Well, looks like the voters and computers had it right. The ACC went 0-4 against the SEC on Saturday, including favorites Clemson and Florida State falling.
Remember this is a year the ACC returned 11 starting quarterbacks. Florida State was thought to be a national title contender. Instead, the ACC proved it still can’t play any defense and the divide is not shrinking, rather growing, between it and the SEC.
7. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said after the game that they felt like Tajh Boyd doesn’t go through his progressions well. Ward said the goal was to take away the primary receiver and force Boyd into scramble/panic mode.
7a. I don’t think this is a fair assessment for a few reasons: for starters, no one goes through progressions well when Clowney is hitting you play after play. Secondly, when Boyd has time we have seen him go to his second and third read. And third, how would Ward know what Boyd’s primary option was on any given play?
7b. But I did think Boyd looked uncomfortable out there in the second half. He looked more like the quarterback of last season than the one who was playing like a Heisman candidate this season. The pressure was intense and I don’t think he responded as well as he could have, he lost his feel for the pocket several times. His interceptions came off back-foot throws. It was his worst game since South Carolina last year.
7c. I did wonder how Boyd would respond to adversity he hasn’t faced much of it this season.
6. But Boyd didn’t get many second-half opportunities because Clemson couldn’t get the ball back. USC possessed the ball for 39 minutes. Crazy.
6a. The defense’s supposed second-half-of-the-season improvement looks more and more like the product over a weak schedule. The secondary was poor in coverage and tackling again Saturday. Tackling from the safety position has been an issue all year and we saw it again when Rashard Hall missed a key tackle on Ace Sanders’ 3rd quarter TD. The front four simply does not have any difference makers, Vic Beasley could be one, Carlos Watkins must become one. That is Clemson’s biggest issue going forward.
6b. Garry Peters did not have a good night. Remember, Bashaud Breeland, the team’s best corner, was injured on special teams against N.C. State. That decision looks key.
5. Give South Carolina some credit: Steve Spurrier called a heckuva game, even mixing in naked bootlegs that were effective with immobile QB Dylan Thompson.
5a. Give Thompson credit for playing well in a spot start. He made smart decisions, accurate throws.
4. How crazy is this: Clemson signed four five-star recruits in 2011 and here’s how they fared Saturday: Watkins has four catches for 37 yards, Stephone Anthony was benched, Tony Steward played on special teams, Mike Bellamy has transferred.
4a. Clemson has recruited at a high level under Swinney – but it has not recruited every position at a high level. The Tigers need elite DL talent, it’s that simple. It would help if the program was allowed to recruit JUCOs. (I think Isaiah Battle and Joe Gore are intriguing at OT). Maybe Carlos Watkins and Corey Crawford and Deshawn Williams continue to develop. Clemson needs major improvement up front.
3. For me, Saturday is not a defeat for the Morris philosophy of offense. It’s simply a matter of a strong defensive front dominating a game. Jimmies and Joes … and some questionable strategy allowing Clowney to be single blocked.
2. Clemson is almost assuredly headed for the Chick-fil-A bowl to take on an SEC team, perhaps LSU. The bowl game is now very important as Clemson’s 10-win season will appear fraudulent if it gets beaten back to back by SEC teams and fails to be a ranked team.
1. Still, regardless of what happens the rest of the way, this season is not a failure for Clemson. Saturday’s loss prevents it from being a great season. But it’s not a failure.
The Tigers haven’ t won 10 games in back to back seasons since Danny Ford was coaching. The Tigers did not stumble once to an inferior opponent — that’s a significant change. They did better play to a standard. They weren’t blown out in any game. Are the Tigers a great team? No. They are flawed. But for the most Clemson beat the spread – 8-3 vs. the spread this season – and expectations this fall. I had Clemson as an eight-win team. Most folks had Clemson as an eight- or nine-win team this season.
THEY SAID IT
*“Are you trying to rub it in?” Brent Venables to a reporter when asked about losing to a SC team playing its no. 2 QB and RB.
*Dabo Swinney: “We couldn’t get the ball in third period. We just couldn’t stop them on third down. The third quarter was huge. We had too many penalties, too many turnovers and South Carolina did a great job of controlling the ball.” Indeed.
*“You can’t one on one block Clowney” – Steve Spurrier.
*Clemson center Dalton Freeman: “I never thought (four in a row) would happen. Their front four dominated us.”
STAT OF THE WEEK
58 – years since South Carolina’s last and only previous four-game winstreak against Clemson (1951-54).
MODEST PROPOSAL OF THE WEEK
Double team Clowney in 2013
NON-FOOTBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
Lincoln is a must see. If Daniel-Day Lewis doesn’t win an Oscar I’ll eat my hat. He was tremendous. Anyone in a leadership position should buy a ticket.