South Carolina vs. Clemson: 10 Things We Learned from USC's Win over Tigers
The Clemson Tigers couldn't get their usually high-flying offense off the ground in a 27-17 loss to the intrastate rival South Carolina Gamecocks.
For the fourth time in a row, the Battle for Palmetto State went to USC, thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from QB Dylan Thompson, who filled in for injured starter Connor Shaw.
Let's take a look at 10 things we learned from the Gamecocks' win over Clemson.
Jadeveon Clowney Is an Unstoppable Monster
Ok, so USC fans already knew that.
But today, in a crucial game for both sides, Clowney came up with a gargantuan effort. He registered five sacks on the day—but that barely begins to tell the story.
Clowney was right in Tajh Boyd's place on a second-quarter play around midfield. The Tigers were marching into USC territory when Clowney got upfield with interior pressure and forced Boyd to change his arm angle.
Boyd threw an absolute duck into no man's land, and DeVonte Holloman hauled in the interception.
Clowney was in Boyd's face all night, and Clemson couldn't find an answer for him.
Performances like this are liable to raise Clowney's draft stock, if that's even possible. We may be watching a future top pick.
Oh, and I forgot to mention: He did all this in a game for which he was listed as questionable with a foot injury.
Tajh Boyd Isn't a Viable Heisman Candidate After All
It seemed just as soon as Clemson QB Tajh Boyd's certifiable Heisman push began, it was over.
Boyd accounted for eight TDs against NC State last week, and the buzz nationally was that he might have a shot at the Heisman Trophy.
Boyd came into the game second in the nation in QB rating and yards per attempt, fifth in TDs and 10th in completion percentage. Add in his eight TDs and his leadership of the nation's sixth-ranked offense, and maybe you have a viable Heisman candidate.
That is, until he threw up a dud against the Gamecocks.
Boyd completed just 45.8 percent of his passes for a woefully inefficient 183 yards. He also threw two picks to just one TD, though he added a rushing touchdown.
Boyd wasn't helped by his receivers, who had a handful of drops in this game. But he didn't play nearly well enough to win this game against a USC team that has been battered by injuries to its starting lineup.
And that's enough reason to exclude him from Heisman contention.
Bruce Was the Better Ellington Today
Besides being a territorial battle, USC vs. Clemson was also a family feud.
As if this game didn't have enough storylines, Gamecocks WR Bruce Ellington and Tigers RB Andre Ellington are cousins.
Both entered the game as major parts of their team's game plan, and both got a lot of touches in this game.
But it was the Gamecocks' Ellington that made the bigger mark.
Bruce finished the game with seven catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns—the Gamecocks' first score (a 13-yard strike that tied the game at seven) and their last (a six-yard catch to put the game out of reach). He also returned three kicks for a total of 70 yards.
Andre played well, but he didn't take over a game in which the Tigers desperately needed to slow South Carolina's vicious pass rush. He finished with 72 yards on 15 carries for a solid 4.8 YPC, but his longest rush was just 13 yards and he failed to punch in any scores.
South Carolina Has an Elite Defense
Heading into this matchup, Clemson had scored 35 points or more in the first half of its last four games. After one quarter, they looked like they had a shot to repeat that feat yet again—this time, against one of the SEC's top defenses.
Clemson put up two TDs in the first quarter, including one on a 43-yard bomb to Deandre Hopkins that beat both the corner and the (late) safety over the top.
At that point, it seemed like they might be able to overpower the USC rush with their plethora of weapons.
But with time, the Gamecocks' defensive line was able to get to Boyd and force him to press. They caused a pair of crucial turnovers and relied on negative plays to halt Clemson drives. The Gamecocks gave up just three points in the final three quarters in a dominant defensive display.
One year after holding the Tigers to just 153 yards, USC kept an even more prolific offense in check. They yielded a middling 328 total yards and, even more importantly, only two touchdowns to a team that scored 62 points last week.
This Gamecocks defense is the real deal, and they showed it against Clemson.
Dabo Swinney Got Outcoached
Dabo Swinney is a great head coach who has done a lot for Clemson's football program. But when it came to in-game adjustments against USC, he wasn't up to snuff.
Swinney couldn't come up with an answer to the Gamecocks' defensive pressure, and at times it seemed like they weren't even trying.
The Gamecocks sacked Boyd six times and pressured him into two INTs. Swinney could have tried to slow USC's line by calling screen plays to Sammy Hopkins or sweeps and draws to Andre Ellington.
For an offense with as many weapons as the Tigers have, the fact that they didn't consistently chip Clowney to slow him off the edge is inexplicable. They hung their QB out to dry and put too much pressure on him to make plays.
In fact, it was Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks who did a better job adjusting the game plan. They ran designed rollouts to simplify Thompson's reads, called a number of screens to get the ball to playmakers in space and kept the ball out of the hands of Clemson's offense.
This was a battle of two very good coaches, but today Spurrier came out on top.
Sammy Watkins and Deandre Hopkins, Where Art Thou?
First of all, credit is due to USC kicker Adam Yates, who was a touchback machine against Clemson, not allowing a single return.
He was one part of the equation in terms of taking the ball out of WR/KR Sammy Watkins' hands. The other? A combination of a USC defense that got consistent pressure and covered well, and a Clemson team that didn't do enough to get its best players the ball.
In fact, Watkins and Hopkins combined for just five touches in a crucial game.
Outside of one electrifying 43-yard TD, Hopkins was invisible. He had no other catches in the game and had a big, wide-open third-down drop.
Watkins didn't fare much better, making four catches but racking up just 37 yards. He didn't factor much in the passing game and did nothing with the ball in space.
Clemson should have done a better job involving both players in the short passing game with screens, outs and slants.
Instead, their two best playmakers totaled fewer receiving yards than USC's Nick Jones and Kenny Miles.
Ace Sanders Deserves a Game Ball
Alright, a lot of Gamecocks deserve one—Clowney, Thompson and Bruce Ellington all warrant consideration.
But if we've got more than one to go around, Ace Sanders can't go unnoticed.
The USC wide receiver racked up a career-high 119 yards, which was also a season-high for any Gamecock receiver.
He demonstrated both speed and balance on a quick screen which he took 36 yards down the left sideline.
But his most electric play came in the third quarter, when he hauled in a 34-yard TD to put USC ahead for good.
On 3rd-and-16, Sanders ran a deep crossing route in front of the safeties. Then he juked out his defender, slipped his tackle and scurried into the end zone.
Sanders turned in the biggest game of his career in the Gamecocks' biggest game of the season.
Now that's good timing.
Dylan Thompson Might Give Shaw a Run for His Money
A lot of USC fans were shocked and disappointed to find out that Connor Shaw was out injured, and rightly so—it felt like a big blow to their aspirations of victory against Clemson.
But Dylan Thompson came on to the big stage and demonstrated that their concerns were unfounded.
Like Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith in San Francisco, the Gamecocks may have a QB controversy on their hands as the result of an injury to the starter.
Thompson demonstrated poise in the pocket, executed well, made few mistakes and even made a few huge plays with his feet (including a 20-yard run on 3rd-and-19 to set up a Bruce Ellington TD).
Thompson (56 percent completion rate) wasn't perfect. He threw an INT to Xavier Brewer in the end zone and got lucky on a couple other would-be interceptions. Still, he was good enough to win a big game on the road against a division rival.
And he outplayed his counterpart, Tajh Boyd, en route to throwing three touchdowns. Not a bad day for a backup.
The Way to Beat Clemson? Keep Its Offense off the Field
The Gamecocks didn't control the tempo of the matchup with a dominant run game—they actually got out-gained by Clemson 145 to 134, despite rushing 10 more times (45 to 35).
Still, they executed long drives that kept the ball out of Clemson's hands and kept the Tigers' playmakers on the sideline.
South Carolina dominated the game's time of possession by an almost two-to-one ratio: they had the ball for 39:58 to Clemson's 20:02.
That's a direct result of the kinds of drives that the Gamecocks engineered.
South Carolina had eight drives of six plays or more. As for Clemson? They had just two.
The Gamecocks realized their offense couldn't win a shootout, and so they did everything they could to keep Clemson's offense on the sidelines.
The Tigers ran just 19 plays to the Gamecocks' 51 in the second half.
Clemson's opposition should take notice in the future—though it's easier said than done. The Gamecocks' game plan require an offense that can execute on third down and a defense that can generate enough stops to avoid a barrage of Clemson points.
Neither Team Will Likely Earn an At-Large Bid
The five other teams ahead of USC in the BCS standings don't really put them in position for an at-large BCS berth, in spite of the win.
By contrast, the Tigers seemed to be in a good position to garner a berth with a win over the Gamecocks, but a loss vitally dents their resume.
Now, a Clemson team that looked to have a ticket punched to the Sugar Bowl likely won't wind up with that berth after all. This loss probably knocks them out of the top 14 in the BCS standings, making them ineligible for an at-large bid selection.
For the Gamecocks, this is a win for their coach Steve Spurrier, who now becomes the winningest coach in USC history. It was also a satisfying win for South Carolina fans over their hated in-state rivals.
But neither team should be selected for an at-large bid.