In a year where every game seemingly makes history, the Gamecocks did it again. For the first and only time since the 50’s, a South Carolina football team came into the Clemson game having won the last four. Never before had the Gamecocks won five in a row, and Tajh Boyd had never beaten South Carolina despite being arguably the best quarterback to put on the orange and purple.
Despite losing by 14, the Tigers outgained the Gamecocks 352-318 in yardage, but two statistics in the box score tell the story.
The number of turnovers that Clemson had.
The number of turnovers that South Carolina had.
The amount of time that the Tigers possessed the ball.
The amount of time that the Gamecocks possessed the ball.
Clemson scored 25 points fewer than their season average and gained only 70% of their season average in total yardage. Whether mistakes by Clemson or opportunism by South Carolina, those numbers determined the fate of the game.
Clemson got the ball first and looked to set the tone early. The Tigers were averaging over 500 yards of offense per game and had
scored more than 50 points in their last four games. Rolling early, the Tigers were putting together a 7-play, 46-yard drive that saw Sammy Watkins catch a few early passes and were set up at the South Carolina 30. A quick score would surely deflate the raucous Williams-Brice crowd, so Chad Morris dialed up a trick play looking to catch the Gamecock secondary out. Unfortunately, Sammy Watkins is no Tajh Boyd, and the wide receiver pass would be sniffed out and intercepted by Brison Williams.
The theme of the four-game winning streak has been time of possession and controlling the line of scrimmage. South Carolina running backs had a poor night running, as there was no room between the tackles, but Connor Shaw was able to make play after play with his legs, keep drives alive, and keep the ball for just over 38 minutes.
South Carolina’s first drive was a thing of beauty and was microcosm of the winning streak. A 17-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that saw the Gamecocks convert three, third downs.
The ensuing Tiger possession was more of Clemson was used to doing. Four plays and 1:38 later Clemson got on the scoreboard courtesy of a Boyd run and set up by a tremendous, 57-yard catch and run by Watkins, who, until Saturday, has had a minimal impact on the rivalry.
South Carolina took over looking to control clock and regain the momentum only to go three-and-out, their first of three in the game. Punting has been the worst facet of South Carolina’s game this year, and Tyler Hull is statistically the worst punter in the Southeastern Conference. With 1:20 left in the first quarter though, everyone in Columbia had forgotten about all past special teams woes, as Skai Moore pounced on muffed punt to set them up at the Clemson 39.
With the short field, the Gamecocks were able to add another score, this time, on a Connor Shaw pass. Shaq Roland, who had a coming
out party on Saturday, caught perfectly thrown fade route from Shaw to take a touchdown lead on the first play of the second quarter. Roland would finish the day with three catches for 40 yards and a touchdown, and while those are not gaudy stats, his catches were impressive—fancy footwork on the touchdown catch—and came at crucial junctures in the game. He would have added another 30 or so yards if his big catch in the second half stood. With a man draped all over him, in what ended up being 15-yard pass interference anyways, Roland pulled down an incredible catch that was somehow deemed an incomplete pass. How, after review it was still not ruled a catch will remain one of the great questions, like how could J. C. Louderback not count to four, and what is chair.
The rest of the half saw South Carolina tighten up defensively, forcing two punts and allowing only 74 yards in the second quarter to the tune of three sacks. The Gamecocks were able to continue holding the ball add a field goal to their lead before the half. After an impressive first half defensively, the Gamecocks bent just enough that the Tigers managed to kick a field goal as the first half ended.
South Carolina received the ball to start the second half, and freshman standout Pharoh Cooper wanted to make sure that the Gamecocks came out with a bang, taking the kickoff back 55 yards, into Clemson territory. Unfortunately, the drive stalled, and the Gamecocks turned it over on downs.
Three-and-out punts were exchanged, and the game seemed to have reached a stale mate, with Clemson hanging on, down 17-10 despite turning the ball over twice.
With less than ten minutes to play in the third, Clemson mounted their best drive of the game, a 15-play, 88-yard drive that ended with a Roderick McDowell touchdown. The Tigers elected to go for it on fourth down at the South Carolina 30-yard line and got nothing…except for a flag. Sharrod Golightly was flagged offsides. On fourth down and one, South Carolina would have taken over on downs. Instead, Clemson kept the ball and three plays later had found the end zone.
Momentum had shifted. South Carolina had not been able to run the ball all game or move it at all since midway through the second quarter. A three-and-out here would have been detrimental, and Connor Shaw’s perfect home record was hanging in the balance. Three plays into the drive, Connor Shaw rushed for 12 on a third-and-13, bringing up a fourth-and-one deep in their own territory. The Head Ball Coach took a timeout to talk things over, and then the Gamecocks got revenge. A hard count on fourth down drew Deshawn Williams into the neutral zone, where Ronald Patrick made a headsy play getting Williams called for the offsides.
Like the Tigers, Connor Shaw would not waste this opportunity, and nine plays later, Mike Davis punched in the go-ahead score, his eleventh of the season. Thus begun the end for Clemson. The last 12 minutes of play saw Tajh Boyd turn the ball over three times.
The next time that the Tigers got the ball, they were moving the ball when Chaz Sutton made a great hustle play, running Boyd down from behind and stripping the ball, ending the drive and the Tigers’ momentum. They would have gotten it back after forcing a punt, but Adam Humphries had his second special teams gaffe as he was stripped from behind.
The Gamecocks took over at the 34 and three plays later, wildcat quarterback Pharoh Cooper lofted his second pass of the day—this one completed—to Brandon Wilds who rumbled into the end zone, adding a little insurance to the Gamecocks’ lead.
Down by two scores, Clemson had to try and drive down the field in a hurry, allowing the Gamecocks to pin their ears back and get after Boyd. He has been wont to wilt under a good pass rush, particularly against South Carolina, and Saturday was no exception. He threw two interceptions in the final 3:44, bringing his total against the Gamecocks to five.
Even a Texas A&M loss could not dampen Gamecock spirits.
In his last game at Williams-Brice and his penultimate game in garnet in black, Shaw finished 14-26 for 152 and two touchdowns—one on the ground. He added 94 yards on the ground as the Gamecocks leading rusher. Regardless of what happens in the bowl, Shaw will be unbeaten at Williams-Brice stadium and the winningest quarterback in South Carolina history. Two of those victories came against the Clemson Tigers. His illustrious reign at South Carolina is ending, but it has been magnificent to watch the toughness and grit of a tried and true winner. The five straight wins over Clemson and the unprecedented success of a program historically mired in mediocrity is thanks in no small part to the heroics of Connor Shaw, the greatest quarterback to ever don the garnet and black. Venit, vidit, vicit.
(Title courtesy of Robert Dixon)