It usually doesn’t come down to this. Clemson has to win its final game against archrival South Carolina to continue their season. Only five times in history has Clemson been in this situation. They are 3-2 in those instances, having won the last two.
Adding some flare to the numbers game is the fact that 63 ACC teams have started the season 1-4. None of them have gone on to attain a bowl berth. Much like Clemson’s 0-fer streak in basketball games in Chapel Hill the streak has to end at some point. As always, the question is when.
Oddly enough, this week just hasn’t had the feel of the normal rivalry week. Devastating losses by both teams last week and talk of Steve Spurrier becoming the Gamecocks’ next coach has taken away from the intensity.
That should change on Saturday afternoon as both teams will engage in what will become the nation’s third longest rivalry played without an interruption.
South Carolina will either send Clemson home for the holidays or Clemson will continue it’s domination in the series and send Lou Holtz off on a sour note. It’s a shame this game has to be played at 12:00 in front of a regional television audience.
The rivalry and the significance of this game deserve so much more.
It would be nearly impossible for the Clemson offense to look much worse than it did last week. After deciding to take the week off and remain in Clemson while their teammates on the defense played their hearts out, they should be well rested and ready to go.
Fans hoping to see a repeat of last year’s performance will be let down. That game was an anomaly, and one the likes of which no one will probably witness in this rivalry as long as they live.
The Clemson players will not be able to draw as much confidence from last year’s performance for a number a couple of reasons.
First, they have struggled all season long. Entering last year’s game they were on an offensive tear after having great games against Florida State and Duke. This time around they find themselves coming off their worst performance of the year and possibly the Bowden era.
Secondly, the Gamecocks have made a number of changes on their defensive staff. A new coordinator who thinks Clemson is a “hellhole” will be looking to back up his comments. Furthermore, the players know they won’t be facing the same defense they saw last year.
There’s nothing extremely fancy about the South Carolina defense. They have rarely blitzed and rely on nothing more than the fundamentals. Although a different scheme, they are much like Virginia in that they tend to sit back and wait for their opponents to make a mistake.
As such, staying out of lots of second and third and longs will be important for the Tigers. The Gamecocks are at their best when their opponents feel pressed to make a big play. And that’s something they’ve done a lot of throughout the season.
It’s been a feast or famine type season for the Gamecock defense. In five of their six wins they’s given up less than 10 points. In their other five games they’ve given up no less than 20. Twice teams have scored more than 40 and they’ve allowed more than 30 in two other contests.
On the flip side, their defense scored touchdowns against Georgia and Arkansas. They also forced safeties against Georgia and Tennessee.
Freshman Ko Simpson currently leads the nation in interceptions per game. He took an interception against Georgia 57 yards for a touchdown and went the same distance for a touchdown on a fumble return against Arkansas. The true freshman was able to go through spring practice and has been the biggest surprise in Columbia.
Defensive ends Geoge Gause and Moe Thompson are as a dominant pair of defensive ends as there is in the SEC. Both are extremely talented athletes that run well. Tackles Barry Richardson and Marion Dukes will have their hands full trying to protect Whitehurst.
As was the case last year, protecting the middle of the field has been an issue for South Carolina. Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Florida hurt them over the middle.
Clemson would love to take advantage of that soft spot but the problem is those plays generally take some time to develop. That’s not always the case when throwing to the tight end but Ben Hall has had to stay in to help with max protection because of the offensive line woes.
The focus shouldn’t be as much on finding ways of creating enough time to hit the middle of the field than it is on playing mistake free football. The Tigers have shown at times throughout the season they can be productive when they don’t shoot themselves in the foot.
The running game will be very important. The nature of Carolina’s defense and Clemson’s inability to provide decent pass protection will make it hard to throw the ball all day long.
It seems like a basic football principle, but a good mix of successful passing and running plays will shore up the offense against a team with a defensive stature such as South Carolina. Ole Miss and Tennessee did just that. Florida killed them through the air, but they were the most productive offense in the SEC coming into the game. They also completed only 18 passes, which is not a lot for a team that scored 48 points.
If Reggie Merriweather can take some of the pressure off of Whitehurst, Clemson has a good chance. If not, that need to press will remain and the Gamecocks will have the Tigers right where they want them.
Carolina has made a living on the big play this year. Receiver Troy Williamson has been a key figure in many of those plays.
He currently leads the SEC in receptions per game and has really improved his status with NFL scouts this season. The one time sprinter in pads has developed into a very good football player with a knack for the ball.
He currently owns the Carolina record for longest play from scrimmage. He accomplished that on a 99-yard play against Virginia last year. He had a career best 210 receiving yards against South Florida this year and has had two games (USF and Georgia) in which he averaged over 40 yards per reception.
He will present a huge challenge for the Clemson secondary because of his speed and ability to make the tough catch. And though his speed makes him a constant threat, it’s his ability to make defenders miss after the catch that makes him so dangerous.
Because of injuries to senior Dondrial Pinkins, sophomore Syvelle Newton has emerged as the Gamecocks’ best quarterback. There have been many times during the season in which it looked as if he simply heaved the ball up hoping one of his receivers would come down with it.
It doesn’t look pretty, but it has worked.
What should scare the Clemson staff is his ability to make something happen with his feet. He’s is as mobile as any quarterback Clemson has faced this year. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, that has posed a huge problem for the defense.
Reggie Ball, Marques Hagans, and Reggie McNeal were all mobile quarterbacks and it was their ability to run that ultimately hurt the Tigers.
Clemson’s secondary is experienced enough to make plays against the pass. What the defense must do is contain Newton when he’s in there.
I say when he’s in there because Lou Holtz has used four different quarterbacks during the season. Pinkins will likely see some action unless he tweaks his shoulder during pregame. Michael Rathe, the hero of the Kentucky game, could also see some action.
If Clemson didn’t have enough headaches worrying about stopping USC’s running quarterbacks, they have to deal with four different tailbacks. Demetris Summers, Cory Boyd, Gonzie Gray, and Daccus Turman should all split time at that spot.
Summers is has been their most productive back even though he hasn’t lived up to the expectations many in Columbia placed on him a couple of years ago. He’s a very talented back that has fought nagging injuries and problems holding onto the ball. Still, the potential for him to have a huge game is there.
All of their backs run extremely hard. Good, solid tackling will be a big issue for John Lovett’s defense. Missed tackles and all of the grabbing that has been witnessed most of the year will lead to a huge rushing day for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina has juggled their offensive line throughout the season. They are very big up front, averaging 310 pounds. Junior Jabari Levey is the biggest (6’7”, 350) and the best of them all. He, too, has had an outstanding junior season that has put him in good standing with scouts.
Aside from the big plays on deep balls and their multiple spread formations, this offense is very reminiscent of the ones Lou Holtz has employed in the past. The mix in the option and will sometime run out of the T-formation in short yardage situation.
Clemson’s defense has played lights out the last five weeks. That trend must continue, especially against the run. Carolina doesn’t have a prolific offense, but they can put points on the board. Like most Holtz teams, they try to outman their opponents on the frontlines and rely on ball control.
Limiting the number of big plays and creating a few of their own will be the most important thing for the defense.
Games like this typically come down to who wins the special teams battle.
Because of Justin Miller, Clemson holds a slight advantage on this front. He continues to lead the nation in kickoff returns. There’s always the possibility for a big play when he’s back deep.
Both teams employ a spread punt formation but have a somewhat different approach. South Carolina punter Joey Bowers will sometimes take the snap and roll out before kicking. It has been fairly effective for him, as he had a career long 64-yarder against Florida and averaged 48 per punt against Ole Miss.
Bowers also handles the placekicking duties. He is 10 of 13 on the season and 2 of 2 from 40 plus yards.
Holtz has stated he will not kick away from Justin Miller. It’s hard to believe anything Holtz says, especially at this time of the season. Whether he sticks to his word could be the difference in the outcome.
Regardless of what anyone from other parts of the country may say, this has to be one of the most intense rivalries in all of college football.
There have been some great stories throughout this series, including the fraternity prank before a game in Columbia, Clemson cadets basically creating riot, and Gator Farr stealing and killing an award winning chicken at the state fair that later led to him conducting a “funeral” annually for a number of years.
It may not present the national appeal many would like because both teams are rarely among the nation’s top 25, but that should not make it any less attractive than the Iron Bowl or the Southern Cal/Notre Dame match up.
Last week’s outcomes make this a hard game to figure out. Both teams have a lot riding on this game and should be more than ready from an emotional standpoint. All of that emotion usually fades after the first few plays and the players usually feed on the actual momentum of the game from that point.
At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will win. Clemson is favored but that probably has more to do with it being a home game.
The roles are somewhat reversed this year in that Clemson is fighting for a bowl berth and South Carolina is expected to rally around its coach.
In the end it should come down to which team has been held to the fire more throughout the season. Considering Clemson has basically had five games which were decided on the last play one would have to say Clemson holds that advantage from that standpoint.
It’s shaping up to be a defensive battle but I think the offenses will find a way to get it done. Clemson’s ability to battle adversity and a drive to make it to a sixth consecutive bowl will allow them to prevail with a 34-28 victory.