The University of South Carolina football team throttled arch-rival Clemson for the third year in a row on Saturday, shutting down the Tigers’ potent offense to record a ten-win season for only the second time in the program’s 118-year history.
USC’s 34-13 victory also denied Clemson its first ten-win season since 1990 – and sent the Tigers limping into next week’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Virginia Tech with three losses in their last four games.
A month ago, head coach Dabo Swinney’s team was was undefeated and ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation – with players and fans salivating at the thought of Clemson’s first national title in thirty years. Lately? The Tigers are playing exactly like the inexperienced, mistake-prone team that everyone thought they would be at the beginning of the 2011 season.
Meanwhile head coach Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks - who were playing in their fifth game without All-SEC running back Marcus Lattimore – turned in perhaps their most complete game of the year, and are now just one bowl victory away from completing the most successful season in school history.
“We were hoping to play our best game of the year and we probably did,” Spurrier said.
In addition to bottling up the Tigers’ star-studded offense, the No. 12 Gamecocks (10-2, 6-2 SEC) racked up 420 yards of total offense against the No. 17 Tigers (9-3, 6-2 ACC) – most of it thanks to sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw.
The 6-foot-1, 204-pound signal caller from Flowery Branch, Georgia completed 14 of 20 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 108 yards and another score – and didn’t turn the football over once.
While Shaw had better passing numbers earlier this season against Kentucky – this was by far his best all-round performance.
Junior running back Kenny Miles – the hero of USC’s 34-17 win over Clemson two years ago – added 71 rushing yards on 21 carries, including several clutch first-down runs to keep key drives alive.
It was Miles first extensive playing time of the year. Entering the game, he had just 66 yards on 18 carries all season.
Freshman running back Brandon Wilds – who eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three of the Gamecocks previous four games in relief of Lattimore – rushed just seven times for 24 yards.
“(Brandon) just seemed like he was running into guys,” Spurrier said. “He wasn’t quite as elusive as we thought he could be. And Kenny deserved a shot. None of us are afraid to put the next guy in if one of them seems to struggle a little bit.”
On this night, though, it was the Tigers who struggled – even when the Gamecocks gift-wrapped a golden opportunity for them midway through the second quarter.
After an impressive 12-play, 61-yard Tiger touchdown drive cut USC’s first-half lead to 10-7, the Tigers caught a huge break when a low snap to Gamecock punter Joey Scribner-Howard resulted in a blocked kick. That special teams gaffe set the Clemson offense up at the Gamecock 26-yard line with seven minutes to go before intermission.
USC’s defense held the Tigers to a field goal, though … and then forced Clemson to punt the football on its first three possessions of the second half.
All told, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s unit held Clemson’s high-octane offensive unit to a season-low 153 yards – and quarterback Tajh Boyd to a season-low 83 yards passing. To put those numbers in perspective, Clemson’s offense came into Saturday night’s game averaging 465 yards per contest – while Boyd entered the game averaging 295 passing yards per game.
“We had opportunities to put some points up, and we had good field position,” Boyd said. “We just couldn’t capitalize. ”
In addition to being held under 100 yards for the first time as a starter, Boyd also threw his seventh interception in the last four games after throwing just three picks through his first eight contests. South Carolina also sacked him five times.
Meanwhile, Clemson’s heralded freshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins – who entered the game with 68 catches for 1,034 yards – was limited to just four receptions for 39 yards.
The defense’s biggest play of the night came with just six minutes left in the game. That’s when junior defensive back DeVonte Holloman picked off an errant pass from Boyd and returned it 26 yards to the Clemson19-yard line.
Two plays later, Shaw found wide receiver Alshon Jeffery for an 18-yard touchdown strike that put the game out of reach.
Prior to the Gamecocks’ recent winning streak, the Tigers had won ten of twelve and six of seven in the series, prompting our founding editor to declare it a “Rivalry In Name Only.”
How times have changed. After being dominated by their in-state rivals for years, the Gamecocks have outscored the Tigers 97-37 during the last three installments of the “Palmetto Bowl.”
“Historically, Clemson has owned this series,” said Spurrier – who move to 4-3 against Clemson. “They don’t own us now.”
Prior to last season, South Carolina hadn’t won back-to-back games against the Tigers since 1968-70 – when they also won three in a row. To put that stat in perspective, Clemson has had four winning streaks of at least four games since then – one reason the Tigers still enjoy a 65-40-4 all-time advantage in the series.
While the game was the regular season finale for both teams, Clemson will be back in action next Saturday against Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C. The Gamecocks will wait for next weekend’s SEC championship game between LSU and Georgia and the Bowl Championship Series pairings to determine where they will wind up bowling.
Representatives from the Chick-Fil-A, Citrus, Gator, Outback and Sugar bowls were on hand for Saturday’s game.
So were 83,442 fans – the second largest crowd to watch a game at Williams-Brice Stadium during the Spurrier era.
Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina