Second Look: Grading Clemson versus South Carolina


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Clelin Ferrell celebrates Saturday against South Carolina
Clelin Ferrell celebrates Saturday against South Carolina

Big wins away from Death Valley are a staple of the season Clemson seeks again for the ACC crown against Miami, but what kind of momentum do the Tigers take out of a dominant rivalry win?

Taking a second look, here's how they graded out against South Carolina:

Offense: B-

It wasn’t the most efficient of games, but two touchdowns on either side of the half was more than enough to complement what Brent Venables’ group had going.

The attack featured a few more wrinkles in the running game and some shorter passes hitting big gains, which both can be recipes for success as the stakes getting higher.

On the run, this is one of the variations of a triple-option-like look shown, which included quite the block from Hunter Renfrow:

And to open the second half, Kelly Bryant hit Renfrow in-stride on a screen, a Ray Ray McCloud block helped spring it and the 5-foot-10 target (plus some poor angles and tackle attempts) did the rest for a 61-yard TD:

Another short pass-to-long gain came in another screen pass to freshman running back Travis Etienne, where Bryant had the option for a screen to either side and Etienne did the rest for a 23-yard gain. Etienne plus some open space to run is a combination the Tigers will take:

In all, Bryant completed five passes that went for 20-plus yards – and almost half of those connections on the season have come in the last two games (7 of 16).

The emergence of five-star freshman Tee Higgins works hand-in-hand with that surge in big plays, seeing his most targets versus an FBS opponent (4) and taking three catches for 84 yards (long of 40 yards). A common criticism of Bryant works here, however, as that 40-yard connection could’ve been a TD if hit in-stride:

Clemson’s coaches noted South Carolina showing some different looks than expected and they still adjusted to post their third-highest yardage total against Power 5 team (469). The two interceptions both came in garbage time with poor, uncharacteristic and fixable decisions on Bryant’s and Hunter Johnson’s part.

Once again, Bryant showed off his ability to throw on the run multiple times, including the first TD to Renfrow:

A strength on their defense going in, South Carolina contained Clemson from breaking long runs – two of four chunk runs coming from McCloud (11 yards each) and the Etienne/Tavien Feaster combo limited to 3.9 yards per carry. Reviewing game after game this season, there are some yards being left out there on read-option plays, and Saturday was no different. That falls on Bryant making those split-second decision calls quite often.

So, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but combined with an elite defense and improving special teams, they are afforded a little room to improve and also make a third-straight Playoff.

Numbers to know: 5 – Completions of 20-plus yards in just over three quarters of action for Bryant. He had 14 total completions of 20 or more yards versus FBS competition previously. 78.1 – Renfrow’s catch rate this season on targets, upping his average to 10.5 yards per reception Saturday. 21.8 – Tee Higgins’ yards per in 12 targets over the last two games, after averaging 7.5 yards in 11 targets in the previous nine games.

Defense: A

On paper, the mismatch was pretty obvious. In practice, that was even more on display.

This was a game that was won before the game. The preparation, skill and mindset of a Clemson defense that’s only gained momentum down the stretch was on full-display. When sophomore South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley made a mistake, Clemson pounced on it, and while the sack count was lower than usual (1), Bentley was clearly bothered by a Tigers’ front-seven with four QB hurries logged.

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell was one of the standouts of the night, as he moved into the top-25 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss per game (2 TFL, 1 sack, four solo tackles). Christian Wilkins was disruptive in the middle, and reserves Chris Register and Albert Huggins had their moments as well.

Kendall Joseph returned from injury to tie Ferrell for the lead in solo stops (4), while Dorian O’Daniel posted a TFL and a QB hurry. With Tre Lamar out for a second-straight game, a redshirt freshman in James Skalski stepped in to lead the defense. The wider margin by game’s end helped work in some more experience for backups that – as we’ve seen down the stretch in many cases – may be called on due to injury.

Ryan Carter was in the right spot at the right time on some miscommunication for the opening score, while Trayvon Mullen recovered from a stumble to pick off another questionable QB-WR connection. Getting healthier at cornerback, there’s a lot of skill there for opposing offenses to deal with.


Venables talked about his defense – despite injuries – getting a rhythm, and that’s hard to dispute. Clemson held a team to 230 or less yards for the fourth time in five games. There’s plenty of reason to feel good about the level of play and depth built with only mega-games left.

Numbers to know: 4.3 – Bentley’s yards per pass attempt, a season-low by more than a yard and the lowest in his career since last year’s game with Clemson (2.7 in 17 first-half attempts). 55 – Minutes into the game until the first of South Carolina’s only two chunk passing plays (15-plus yards). They finished with just four chunk gains in 54 plays. 8 – Turnovers forced in the last four games (seven interceptions, one fumble gained), which makes up half of the season total.

Special teams: B

Will Spiers and the Clemson punt coverage forced the issue to help out the Tiger defense, pinning one attempt at the 1 and placing another punt inside the 20 to almost a grab fumble recovery.

Etienne posted one of the longer kick returns of the season (39) right before the Bryant-to-Renfrow second TD connection. On the other side, a Clemson kickoff coverage unit that’s been solid all year continued that trend in containing the Gamecocks to 21 yards per on seven returns.
Maybe as key as anything on the road was no turnovers despite seven South Carolina punts. That included deking the coverage team out into a couple touchbacks.

Of note in the place-kicking – outside of a missed extra point – was the coaching staff opting to go for fourth down conversions instead attempting some longer distance field goals. That’s probably an indicator of the mode going forward with a unit that’s 1-of-5 on attempts of 40-plus yards this season.

Numbers to know: 3-of-3 – Spiers total punts and attempts that all pinned South Carolina inside the 20. 3-of-4 – The amount of touchbacks from Gamecocks punter Joseph Charlton against Clemson compared to his season total.

Videos are included under fair use. Under section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, education and research.

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