Note to South Carolina defense: It's OK to exhale.
That includes you, Jadeveon Clowney.
Battered, beleaguered and belittled after a series of four consecutive subpar performances, Clowney and the defense stepped up Saturday in the Gamecocks' 52-7 victory at Arkansas.
Never mind that Clowney, South Carolina's All-American defensive end, recorded only one tackle—and that came late in the third quarter with the outcome already decided.
Without question he played a factor in Saturday's outcome, drawing double- and triple-teams while freeing up his teammates to make big plays.
It was a statement game of sorts, not only for Clowney, but the entire South Carolina defense.
When Clowney opted not to play last week against Kentucky because of bruised rib muscles, it set off a national firestorm of criticism, starting with his own coach, Steve Spurrier. After initially questioning Clowney's resolve, Spurrier backed off, but still the questions persisted as to whether Clowney's heart was in the college game with a big NFL paycheck looming a few months down the road.
That was answered Saturday—not only by Clowney but by his teammates, who rallied around their star player and turned in what was without question their best overall performance of the year.
South Carolina held the Razorbacks to 248 yards in total offense, only 30 of which came through the air, and 16:35 in time of possession.
Even though Clowney didn't pile up stats, he was a force nonetheless, in one instance driving three blockers back into the Arkansas quarterback and almost making a sack. He also blew up a running play by forcing the running back wide and up against the sideline.
It was a perfect storm when coupled with a South Carolina offense that ran 89 plays and controlled the clock for 43:25, piling up 32 first downs and 537 yards of total offense.
Most of the starters on offense and defense were on the bench at the end of the third quarter, as the Gamecocks had built a comfortable 38-7 lead. It was a rare rest for the defense, which has spent most of the last several weeks hanging on by its fingernails in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina's defense was expected to be one of the best in the country this year, just as it had been each of the last two years. The questions about Clowney and the defense started in South Carolina's second game of the season when the Gamecocks lost 41-30 at Georgia. Never mind that the Bulldogs have been one the most prolific offenses in the country.
What followed may have been even worse, though: narrow victories over Vanderbilt (35-25), Central Florida (28-25) and Kentucky (35-28). Embarrassing defensive lapses made all three games closer than they should have been.
At the center of it all was Clowney, a media sensation who couldn't possibly have lived up to the hype directed toward him heading into this season. Saturday, he looked like a young man having fun. Cameras closed in on a smiling Clowney, as he fairly skipped toward the locker room at halftime with the Gamecocks ahead 24-7.
Granted, South Carolina's dominating performance came against a 3-4 Arkansas team that has now lost four consecutive games and is a decidedly one-dimensional offense.
And the Gamecocks were also lucky in addition to being good. Two of the biggest plays of the day for the Razorbacks—a 50-yard run by Keon Hatcher to the South Carolina 21-yard line and a 29-yard run to the goal line by Alex Collins—ended with fumbles that were recovered by the Gamecocks.
However, in light of the struggles of recent weeks, Saturday's romp may just be what the Gamecocks need to jump-start their 2013 season.
An additional emotional boost also has to come from Missouri's 41-26 victory over Georgia.
Now the 5-1 Gamecocks are back in the hunt in the SEC East race, with road games the next two weeks against Tennessee and currently unbeaten Missouri.
Maybe Clowney and the South Carolina defense aren't that bad after all. At the very least, it's a safe bet they're all feeling better after today's effort.