CLEMSON, S.C. – With one week left in the 2013 regular season, Clemson has put together an impressive resume.
The Tigers are No. 6 in the BCS standings. They’re 10-1 overall and 7-1 in ACC play. They’ve won 10 games for the third consecutive year, the program’s longest streak since 1987-90. With one more win, they’ll have the program’s first-ever back-to-back 11-win seasons.
But one gaping hole remains on the program’s resume for this season, and that of the past four seasons: a win over South Carolina.
Since Dabo Swinney sealed his ascension from interim to full-time head coach with 2008’s 31-14 whipping of the Gamecocks, Clemson has lost four consecutive games to its instate rival.
South Carolina’s streak ties for its longest in the rivalry’s history: The Gamecocks also won four consecutive from 1951-54.
Swinney is well aware of this: He joked Saturday that “my wife reminds me every morning, and by the time I get to breakfast, (my son) Will hits me with it, too.”
So how does Clemson change the conversation and beat No. 10 South Carolina in Columbia, a victory that would all but seal the program’s second BCS bid in three years?
Here are four key ways.
Contain Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney’s struggles this season are well documented. The standout junior defensive end has struggled this season with injury and questions regarding his motivation. He sat out one game with a rib injury and is also battling bone spurs in his foot, which will require surgery following the season. He sat out Saturday’s 70-10 win over Coastal Carolina but will play this week.
In nine games, he has 32 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. By comparison, a year ago he had 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
He was virtually unblockable in South Carolina’s 27-17 win at Clemson, piling up a Memorial Stadium-record 4.5 sacks.
Swinney knows stopping Clowney will be a “big challenge.”
“Clowney is a great player,” he said. “I don’t care what the numbers say, he’s a load to handle. He is as advertised. Very talented. Incredibly disruptive. We have to have a plan for him. He’s as good as anyone in the country. No doubt we’ll get the best he’s got.”
Clowney lines up all over the defensive line, but he does so primarily at left defensive end. That means the task of stopping him will likely fall to freshman right tackle Isaiah Battle.
Right tackle has been a concern for Clemson all season, with junior Gifford Timothy and sophomore Shaq Anthony splitting time there. But Battle has earned praise for his work there while starting the last two games.
He fared well after being pressed into action in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU’s standout defensive line which featured NFL first-round pick Barkevious Mingo, but facing off against Clowney will be his biggest test yet.
Clemson would be wise to double-team Clowney, but that opens room up for standout junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, who leads the Gamecocks with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Either way, it’ll be a huge challenge for the Tigers offensive line, one that it must solve for success.
Run the Ball Effectively
Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense is predicated on moving the ball with a physical running game. That has been easier said than done at times this season.
A year ago, Clemson averaged 191.1 yards rushing, 36th-best nationally. This year, the Tigers average 176.8 yards rushing per game, 61st nationally. They’ve reached last season’s average only three times, rushing for 197 yards against Georgia, 236 against Maryland and 208 against The Citadel.
Senior tailback Rod McDowell has four 100-yard games, and two have come in the last four weeks. He’ll need to be a workhorse Saturday: Backup Zac Brooks is likely to miss the rest of the season after re-aggravating a shoulder injury against The Citadel, and fellow backup D.J. Howard is battling through an ankle injury.
Keeping the ball on the ground and burning clock will be crucial in keeping South Carolina’s offense off the field. A year ago, the Gamecocks held the ball for 39:58 to Clemson’s 20:02 and limited the Tigers to just 19 second-half offensive snaps.
Get Great Play from Tajh Boyd
Boyd has accomplished a tremendous amount in his three seasons as the Tigers’ starter. He is the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and also holds the ACC record for touchdown responsibility (passing and rushing scores combined). He is second in league history in passing yardage behind N.C. State’s Philip Rivers and holds nearly 50 Clemson and ACC single-game, single-season and career records.
But he has yet to beat South Carolina and has performed poorly against the Gamecocks.
In 2011, he completed 11 of 29 passes for 83 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Last year, he completed 11 of 24 passes for 183 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
He comes in on a roll: Since completing 17 of 37 passes for 156 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the 51-14 loss to Florida State, Boyd has 13 touchdowns against three interceptions. He has surpassed 300 yards three times in four games and passed for 288 against The Citadel, leaving in the third quarter with a 42-3 lead. Clemson has scored at least 50 points in three consecutive games.
Clemson’s line must protect Boyd and give him time to throw to standout wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. If the Tigers can establish a balanced offense, it’ll be tough for South Carolina to keep up.
Win the Turnover Battle
It sounds cliché, but South Carolina simply doesn’t turn the ball over very often: The Gamecocks have just 15 turnovers on the season.
Senior quarterback Connor Shaw has been extremely efficient, passing for 20 touchdowns and just one interception this season while throwing for 1,983 yards.
Clemson has forced 25 turnovers this season. Saturday marked the first time since 2012 that the Tigers didn’t intercept a pass, breaking a nation’s-best 13-game streak.
If Shaw makes mistakes, Clemson’s secondary must capitalize on them.