COLUMBIA – Maybe it was just the fact that Clemson’s minds and hearts were already in Tampa. Maybe the extra week of preparation was squarely in Carolina’s favor. Maybe Clemson was due a bad game after winning convincingly for six straight weeks.
Or maybe the South Carolina Gamecocks just wanted it more.
Whatever the reason, the Gamecocks took out a lot of frustration on the Tigers Saturday afternoon, whipping the Tigers 34-17 at Williams-Brice Stadium, their first win over a Top 20 Clemson team since 1958, sending the Tigers (8-4) into the ACC Championship Game on a sour note.
One certainty is that the Tigers’ three turnovers, which led to 17 early South Carolina points, was one of the keys to Carolina’s dominating first half.
“Those turnovers were important; we just gave them the ball,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We had chances to put points on the board, but then we turned the ball over and put our defense in bad position a couple of times. We had a missed tackle on the goal line, to where if we stop him there, we could have held them to a field goal. But the turnovers killed us.”
The Gamecocks opened the game by kicking off to Spiller and hemming him in, but were offsides on the play, and Clemson opted for the re-kick. Carolina kicked to Spiller yet again, and he took it around the left side, slipped by kicker Spencer Lanning just past the 50 and was off to the races for an 88-yard touchdown and 7-0 Clemson lead.
The Gamecocks and Tigers traded turnover on their next two drives, but Carolina’s second possession ended with the tying touchdown. The Gamecocks employed their version of the Wildcat, with cornerback Stephon Gilmore at quarterback, and Brian Maddox capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers’ ensuing possession ended on a Kyle Parker interception, and it took Carolina just two plays to score the go-ahead touchdown when Stephen Garcia hit tight end Weslye Saunders from nine yards out for the 14-7 lead.
A roughing the punter penalty kept the next Carolina drive alive, and the Gamecocks took advantage when Spencer Lanning hit a 47-yard field goal for a 17-7 Carolina lead with 10:44 remaining in the first half.
The Tigers dodged two more bullets before the half, one on a 13-yard punt by Dawson Zimmerman that a Gamecock player touched and Clemson recovered, and then DeAndre McDaniel’s safety blitz sacked Garcia with 15 seconds remaining in the half to keep the score at 17-7.
A C.J. Spiller fumble gave Carolina a golden opportunity early in the second half, but Da’Quan Bowers picked a good time to get Clemson’s first blocked kick of the year, putting his big paw on a 42-yard field goal attempt by Spencer Lanning.
However, the Gamecocks took advantage of Clemson’s offensive ineptitude, another three-and-out that Carolina up in good field position and the Gamecocks responded with a touchdown when Garcia hit Tori Gurley on a 14-yard touchdown pass, and Carolina led 24-7 midway through the third quarter.
Richard Jackson hit a 45-yard field just over three minutes into the fourth quarter to trim Carolina’s margin to 14 at 24-10, but Carolina ended any hopes of a Clemson comeback when Lanning nailed a 38-yard field goal to put Carolina up 27-10 with 5:22 remaining.
Clemson responded with too little, too late, when Parker finally hit his stride against the Gamecocks and drove the Tigers down the field, hitting Michael Palmer on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 3:46 remaining to make the score 27-17.
The Tigers attempted an onside kick, but the kick was short and Alshon Jeffrey returned it inside the Clemson 10-yard line, and Carolina put the exclamation point on the day when Garcia hit Saunders on a one-yard touchdown for the 34-17 final.
Overall, the Gamecocks rushed 58 times for 223 yards on Clemson’s defense, and Tiger linebacker Brandon Maye said it was due to missed assignments on the part of Clemson’s defense.
“We just had guys not playing their gaps,” Maye said. “I thought we tackled well, and you have to give credit to South Carolina because they played hard. Our coaches did a great job of preparing us this week, but we made too many mistakes. Now we have to turn the page and get ready for the ACC Championship Game.”
Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker, who struggled through a 22-for-42 day, said it will be easy for the Tigers to put this game in the past and get ready for the ACC Championship.
“You just have to say this is a bad week, and forget about it,” Parker said. “This is the first time Clemson gets the chance to play for an ACC title in 18 years, so we have to get ready for that.. We just have to cope with this loss. There are bigger things left to do in this season. We just have to go back to work and execute better.”
Spiller, whose Heisman chances took an almost-certain fatal hit [9 rushes for 22 yards, 3 receptions for 19 yards], said the Gamecocks deserve the credit for winning, but agreed with his head coach about the turnovers.
“Their guys just came out and played hard,” Spiller said. “When you’re on the road, you can’t turn the ball over. I put the ball on the ground. You can’t do that. You have to be able to take care of the ball. Playing against a team like that, you just can’t do it or you’ll get the same results every time.. We have to realize what our mistakes were and get them corrected and get ready for the [ACC] Championship game.”
Guard Thomas Austin said he thought this Tigers played hard, but just couldn’t overcome the early miscues.
“I don’t think we came out flat,” Austin said.. “We prepared hard this week. But we put a drive together and fumbled the ball, then put another drive together and threw an interception, and they scored off of both of those drives. So when that happens, when you’re down 17-7 and then they score again, you have to start passing the ball.”