Lou Holtz was hired in the winter of 1998 to revive a program that was in the throes of a 21-game losing streak. Many thought at the time it was the greatest hire South Carolina could ever make.
Six years later Holtz’s hiring was trumped when Steve Spurrier was brought in to hemorrhage the program that was once again declining. Ten games later he could walk away and his stay would be considered a huge success.
The Gamecocks are 7-3 with wins over Tennessee and Florida. Both teams are down when compared to years past, but that should not take away from the team’s accomplishments. Those victories are as sweet, if not sweeter, for Carolina fans as Clemson’s victory last week against a sub par (at least in relative terms) Florida State team.
Yet, the Gamecock fans are not satisfied. What they want more than anything is the one feat Holtz found nearly impossible to accomplish – a victory over Clemson.
South Carolina has allowed opponents to register some big numbers this year. Florida, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Georgia all gained over 350 yards. Central Florida picked up 341 yards and Alabama torched them for 489.
Still, they are ranked 39th in the country in total defense and have managed to do the one thing that is ultimately used to judge a defense – keep their opponents out of the end zone.
Led by highly thought of co-coordinators John Thompson and Tyrone Nix, this somewhat blue collar defense has quietly gone about their business as everyone has focused on Spurrier and his offense.
They now lead the SEC in sacks (31) and takeaways (18). The last seven games have produced 15 of those takeaways, which have resulted in 76 points and been one of the biggest factors in their success down the stretch.
The stat I find most amazing is the number of players with a sack – 17. Regardless of talent, ability of their opponents, or scheme, it is hard to have that many players contribute to such an important aspect of the defense.
There is no question the secondary is their strength. For those who have actually taken the time to look on the other side of the ball to talk about the USC defense, the same two words are the first spoken by nearly everyone – Ko Simpson.
The sophomore safety (rover) is one of the best in the country. Some say he is the best because he can do it all. Whether is pass coverage, run support, or blitzing, he has found a way to make big play, and usually at the times they need them the most.
He leads the team in tackles with 87 after ranking third nationally with six interceptions last year. Against Kentucky earlier this season, he returned a fumble for a touchdown, picked off a pass that led to a TD, and had a game-high 13 tackles.
Johnathan Joseph and Fred Bennett are the others that provide support. Joseph has three interceptions, his biggest coming against Georgia for a TD, and Bennett has started 19 of the last 21 games.
The linebackers are rather inexperienced other than Lance Laury, who leads the defense with 26 starts. Dustin Lindsey (6’3”, 215) is small for a middle linebacker but he has managed to supplant Ricardo Hurley, the once all-world linebacker that has had a disappointing college career.
On the side opposite of Laury is Terrell Davis (6’0”, 192). The former defensive back made his first start just two weeks ago against Arkansas, becoming the 28th USC player to get their first collegiate start in 2005. He replaced junior college transfer Mike West after the coaches felt he was not making the most basic of plays.
The leader up front is nose tackle Stanley Doughty (6’1”, 328). His massive lower body enables him to stuff the middle and penetrate the line. He has seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, but more importantly he can cause some matchup problems because of his size.
Beside him is Chris Tucker, who has become a cult hero in less than a week after he nearly rumbled half the distance of the field for a touchdown after an interception on Florida’s first drive.
The ends are Orus Lambert and Jordin Lindsey. Lambert is a former linebacker and Lindsey is a true sophomore who is still adjusting to his role.
Again, aside from Simpson, there really are no big names on this defense. It is a collection of good, solid players who have become comfortable with the system and are getting the most out of their abilities. In many instances that is a much better formula than having a bunch of athletes with a “me” attitude.
The three weaknesses I see are the same ones that have plagued them the last couple of years – overall speed and depth and getting off the field.
The Gamecocks are allowing their opponents to convert on 46% of their third-down plays. The success they have had on defense is surprising considering their letting their opponents extend drives nearly half the time.
Clemson’s line is as good and deep as it has been in years and they have a running back tandem in Reggie Merriweather and James Davis that can pound it inside and has the speed to get to the corner. That should bode well for them as the game progresses.
From a passing game standpoint, look for Rob Spence to continue to dink and dunk. The screens and short passes are great against blitzing defenses, but they also give guys like Chansi Stuckey and Aaron Kelly a chance to make plays, something that is much harder to do when attempting low percentage deep balls.
Besides, Carolina has done a good job throughout the season of limiting big plays by keeping things underneath. They let the offense pick up four here or eight there and pounce on their opponents when they make mistakes.
The line did a great job against Florida State last week and will need another such performance. What the Tigers cannot do is make the mistakes they did against Georgia Tech. South Carolina is far too opportunistic and aiding them in their efforts will certainly lead to an unwanted outcome.
This Carolina team has not been the offensive juggernaut that has become synonymous with the name Spurrier, but they have been efficient enough to make it happen when it counts the most.
USC has scored on 26 of their 31 trips to the red zone (83.9%). And as opportunistic as the defense has been, the offense has been just as good by scoring 22 touchdowns in those situations.
By comparison, Clemson currently leads the ACC with 39 scores in 43 attempts (90.7%), but only 24 of those have been touchdowns. Had the Tigers been as successful at finding the end zone as the Gamecocks, there is no telling just how good their record would be entering the game.
Quarterback Blake Mitchell is not a Danny Weurffel just yet, but he has a 60% completion percentage for just over 1900 yards and 15 TDs with only three interceptions. Not bad for a guy who has had to work all but the last two games with a different starting line and not much of a running game.
The Gamecocks are ranked 112th out of 119 teams in rushing offense with 83.3 yards per game. Daccus Turman and Mike Davis have shared much of the load throughout the season. They had one of their best rushing performances of the season last week with four touchdowns and 120 yards.
The yardage number is not eye popping but it was enough to keep Florida honest as the Gamecocks completed just seven of 17 passes.
When it comes to passing the ball Mitchell’s favorite target has been Sidney Rice. He is 21st nationally with 92.2 yards per game and his 12 touchdowns are two shy of the NCAA freshman record.
He is not the most gifted athlete at the position by any means, but he does a great job of adjusting to the ball and using his 6’4” frame to its fullest. He has now drawn six pass interference calls and has gotten better as the season has progressed despite facing double teams.
Providing help as of late has been another freshman, Kenny McKinley. He has 18 catches in the last six games while forcing defense to focus less on Rice.
The two rocks up front have been left tackle Jabari Levey (6’6”, 316) and right guard Na’Shan Goddard (6’5”, 304). Both are NFL prospects and the most experienced guys on the offense. Levey has 27 starts and Goddard has 36.
Walk-on Thomas Coleman lines up at left guard for his fifth start. He may be the most versatile of all the linemen after starting at three different positions this year.
Center Chris White and right tackle Jamon Meredith round out the group. White is one of only two linemen to start all 10 games this season and Meredith is a former defensive end in his first year on offensive side of the ball.
USC lost their biggest playmaker when Syvelle Newton went down with a torn Achilles against Vanderbilt just as he was beginning to carve his niche as an all-everything guy.
Much like the defense is Ko Simpson and everyone else, the offense is Sidney Rice and 10 other guys. I think that has been a blessing in disguise because it has made the offense rely on being efficient rather than searching for the big play.
Please do not misunderstand that statement. They have had their fair share of big plays throughout the season, but the theme has been more centered towards executing without making many mistakes.
Their lack of interceptions and penalties are a testament to just how well that plan of attack has worked.
The Clemson defense has played extremely well most of the season and has especially come on strong since the loss to Wake. Last week was perhaps their best performance of the season as they held the FSU offense to two field goals and registered six sacks.
Ends Gaines Adams and Charles Bennett need to maintain the level of play they had last week. Although one side is well kept by Levey, Meredith is still learning and provides an opportunity for the Tigers to make some plays.
Clemson’s depth on the interior should give them an advantage as the game wears on because USC has very few bodies up front and fresh legs are tough to handle late in the game.
Vic Koenning had an excellent game plan last week that confused FSU’s young quarterback, Drew Weatherford. Coverages were disguised extremely well the defensive backs all seemed to be on the same page.
Mitchell is more experienced, has the home field advantage, and benefits from having an offensive mastermind like Spurrier on his side. In the end it could come down to a chess match between street fight between Spurrier and Koenning. The Ol’ Ball Coach may have the brains, but it appears Koenning’s athletes give him the brawn.
Two of the better kickers in the Southeast will be on display in Josh Brown and Jad Dean. Brown has made 16 of his 23 attempts, but he is 15 of his last 18 with a long of 49 yards that won the Tennessee game.
Dean is 20-of-26 on the year with a block and a miss from 56 yards. He has the stronger leg of the two but has lost a little of the accuracy he displayed earlier in the year. There has not been a need to call on him as much in recent weeks but I would still give him the slight advantage.
Brown also handles the punting duties and gives USC one of their few statistical advantages. He is averaging 40 yards per attempt and has had 14 of his kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.
Cole Chason had his fourth punt of the season blocked last week, this time for a touchdown, and has struggled with a 36.4 yard average. It sounds like a broken record, but the scheme is not at fault.
Poor execution has led to all four blocks. Last week Clemson’s tackle in the punting formation failed to get a good punch on his man as he released. The result was an FSU defender coming nearly untouched through the C gap for an easy block.
The return games for both teams have been somewhat anemic most of the year. Clemson does have a touchdown on a punt return from Chansi Stuckey and USC’s Carlos Thomas has a kickoff return of 79 yards.
Clemson has gone to Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham in recent weeks and been more successful. Grisham is doubtful this week with a pulled back muscle, so Stuckey will take over that role.
Despite all of the talk about throwing out the records because the intense hatred levels the playing field, the team with the better record is 17-3-1 since 1981 (they have had identical records three times). The better team usually wins.
South Carolina has finally learned how to capitalize on their opponents mistakes and win close games. They are 5-1 in games decided by 10 points or less and they have rallied in the second half to win four of their last five games.
Steve Spurrier has gone 187 games as a college coach without being shutout. There is no denying he is one of the top coaches in the game and that streak will likely stay in tact this week.
I think Clemson has better and deeper talent and should win based on how the game unfolds on paper. However, the one thing the box scores do not account for is momentum.
The Gamecocks are on as good a roll as any team in the country, all things considered, and they have years’ worth of desire pushing that train of momentum down the tracks. Factors such as rivalry and revenge pale in comparison to what momentum can do for a team.
Had South Carolina started off hot only to suffer a late season swoon as they have in years past, I do not think this game would be as highly contested as many think it will. But they now believe in themselves, and we all know how dangerous that can be.
Still, I think Clemson has a little momentum of its own and they are coming together at the right time. Unlike past years when injuries or a lack of talent has hurt them, their wounds have been self-inflicted. Mental mistakes have smacked them in the face a number of times.
The seniors have a chance to leave with a 4-0 record against USC and a chance to put themselves in position for a decent bowl bid. Charlie Whitehurst can surpass Clemson legends Steve Fuller and Homer Jordan by becoming the first quarterback to beat his rival four times.
With 10 games under their belts, there are no more excuses for mistakes. Freshmen are essentially sophomores and the veterans have had time to learn the new systems. Clemson knows how to finish strong while South Carolina is experiencing that feeling for the first time in years.
In the end, I think Clemson puts all of the pieces to the puzzle together and their depth wins out. It will be close for a half but Clemson will come out with a 31-17 victory.