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The University of South Carolina’s breakthrough season under sixth-year football coach Steve Spurrier continued on Saturday as the Gamecocks earned an opportunistic 29-7 victory over arch-rival Clemson in Death Valley. After last year’s 34-17 win in Columbia, S.C. the Gamecocks have now beaten the Tigers in consecutive seasons for the first time in forty years.

That’s right … forty years.

The win also gave South Carolina its ninth victory of the season – only the third time in 117 seasons that the program has reached the 9-win plateau.

Next up for USC? The Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta on December 4 – where they’ll get another shot at the undefeated, second-ranked Auburn Tigers (who defeated the Gamecocks 35-27 back in September).

“Next week is one of the biggest games that our team has ever played,” Spurrier said. “We’re looking forward to it. We’ve got a bunch of guys that like going on big stages. It was a big stage (at Death Valley), and it was a big stage down in Florida. But the really big stage is down in Atlanta.”

Auburn preserved its perfect season Friday with a dramatic come-from-behind win against arch-rival Alabama, although controversy continues to swirl around the program and its star quarterback Cam Newton.

There’s no controversy as far as the “Palmetto Bowl” is concerned, though. South Carolina dominated this rivalry game for the second year in a row – even as its offense failed to fire on all cylinders.

With heralded true freshman running back Marcus Lattimore held in check by Da’Quan Bowers and the rest of the Tigers’ ferocious front four, the No. 18 Gamecocks (9-3, 5-3 SEC) relied on sophomore wide receiver Alshon Jeffery – as well as a host of miscues by Clemson (6-6, 4-4 SEC).

Jeffery caught five passes for 141 yards and a touchdown – his seventh 100-yard game of the season (and the tenth 100-yard game of his career). The 6-foot-4, 233-pound wide receiver now has 75 grabs for 1,351 yards and eight touchdowns this year – one of the most prolific receiving campaigns in school history. In fact, having broken Sidney Rice’s single-season receiving yardage record a week ago against Troy, Jeffery now needs just three catches to break the late Kenny McKinley’s single-season reception record.

Meanwhile Lattimore – South Carolina’s first 1,000-yard rusher in a decade – finished his inaugural Carolina-Clemson game with 48 yards on 23 carries. That’s just 2.1 yards per carry – easily the lowest per-carry average of his career. Ordinarily, that would have spelled trouble for Spurrier’s offense – and it could have in this game – but the Tigers seemed intent on shooting themselves in the foot.

The first key mistake by Dabo Swinney’s team took place midway through the first quarter when punter Dawson Zimmerman mishandled a snap on fourth down. Backup running back Brian Maddox recovered the fumble at the Tigers’ five-yard line and one play later Carolina scored an early go-ahead touchdown on a pass from Stephen Garcia to Patrick DiMarco.

Garcia completed 14 of 30 passes for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He had no interceptions for the third game in a row.

Clemson’s second major miscue took place after the Tigers’ defense forced USC to punt on its opening drive of the second half – giving the Tigers a chance to pull within a touchdown if they could capitalize. After a pair of first downs, however, sophomore quarterback Kyle Parker was picked off by Gamecock defensive back Antonio Allen – who darted 37 yards for a score that put USC up 26-7.

Antonio Allen streaks toward the end zone after picking off Kyle Parker. (TRAVIS BELL/Sideline Carolina)

Clemson never recovered – and Parker never saw the field again.

The “pick six” prompted Swinney to yank his starting quarterback in favor of freshman Tajh Boyd – although the switch did little to stimulate the anemic Tiger offense, which went three-and-out on Boyd’s first three offensive series. In fact, after scoring on a 45-yard pass play on their opening drive, the Tigers didn’t cross midfield again until the 10:44 mark of the fourth quarter – an abysmal span that included eight punts, a fumble and Parker’s costly interception.

And when Clemson finally did reach Gamecock territory again, Boyd coughed up the football five plays later after being hit by USC defensive end Cliff Matthews. Defensive tackle Travian Robertson recovered for the Gamecocks, and Clemson’s only threatening drive of the second half was snuffed out.

In fairness to the Tigers, they were playing their fourth game in a row without star running back Andre Ellington – an explosive rusher who gained nearly 700 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in eight games before succumbing to turf toe. Ellington did trot out onto the field briefly against the Gamecocks, but was clearly in no shape to play – carrying the ball just one time for no gain.

Prior to last year, the Carolina-Clemson game had pretty much turned into a “Rivalry in Name Only” with the Tigers taking six out of the last seven games and 10 out of the last 12. In fact even after USC’s back-to-back wins, Clemson still owns a commanding 65-39-4 series advantage.

Carolina’s futility against Clemson has also contributed mightily to its recent end-of-season struggles. Over the previous three years, USC was 20-5 in games played prior to October 15 – but just 4-14 in games played after October 15 (including a 1-2 mark against Clemson). This year, however, Carolina has racked up five wins after the traditional mid-point of the season – including a second straight victory over their arch-rivals and an SEC East-clinching victory over the Florida Gators in “The Swamp.”

The win improved Spurrier’s record to 3-3 against Clemson, while Swinney slipped to 1-2 against USC.

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Pics: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina

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