COLUMBIA, S.C.—On the floor of Williams-Brice Stadium late Saturday night, Steve Spurrier raised his right thumb in celebration.
The symbolism was easy to spot for any of the 84,000 in attendance: No. 10 South Carolina 31, No. 6 Clemson was “one for the thumb.”
Thanks to a grind-it-out offense and opportunistic defense, South Carolina won for the fifth consecutive time against Clemson, the program’s longest winning streak in the teams’ 105-game rivalry.
Down a Williams-Brice tunnel, the Tigers’ locker room was devastated, with only a handful of players accepting interview requests. And who could blame them? They’d just accomplished an ignominious feat, something no one in their program’s history had ever managed: lost a fifth consecutive game to South Carolina.
So how do the Tigers flip the script and end Spurrier’s hex in 2014?
There are several key areas worth exploring for Clemson to achieve the success against the Gamecocks its players, coaches and fans so badly want.
A simple comparison of the 2012 and 2013 losses bears out some devastating similarities.
A year ago, South Carolina ran 86 plays to Clemson’s 59, outgained the Tigers 444-328 and held the ball for 39:58 to Clemson’s 20:02. Clemson lost the turnover battle, 2-1.
Saturday night? The Gamecocks ran 78 plays to Clemson’s 57. The Tigers actually outgained South Carolina 352-318, but held the ball for just 21:51 to the Gamecocks' 38:09. Clemson lost the turnover battle 6-0.
“I started thinking,” Spurrier said. “Amazingly, when we play these guys from Clemson, the script follows the same thing.”
In the two losses to South Carolina, the Tigers had eight turnovers while averaging 17 points per game. That’s no recipe for success.
“We never play a complete and clean game against those guys,” Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “Credit those guys. They do a really good job of capitalizing on our mistakes. I think we hurt ourselves for the most part.”
Over the course of its five-game win streak, South Carolina has committed three turnovers against Clemson while forcing 15. In that same stretch, South Carolina has outscored Clemson in points off turnovers 62-0.
Clemson committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter Saturday alone.
The Tigers’ first turnover of the night came at the South Carolina 30 while driving: Wideout Sammy Watkins threw a wide receiver pass too high for Adam Humphries, and Brison Williams intercepted in the end zone.
With the score tied 7-7, Humphries lost a punt off his chest (with teammate Martavis Bryant in close proximity), and South Carolina recovered at the Tigers’ 39.
South Carolina converted that muff into a touchdown as well for a 14-7 lead.
With the Gamecocks leading 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, Boyd drove the Tigers inside the South Carolina 35. But while scrambling for extra yards, South Carolina defender Chaz Sutton stripped the ball and recovered it, ending the threat.
“I honestly thought I was down,” Boyd said. “I got down, got lifted back up and it shimmied out. That was how it happened.”
Clemson’s defense forced a punt. Then, disaster.
Humphries fumbled at his own 34, and South Carolina recovered.
It was the Tigers’ fourth turnover of the night, second on a Humphries punt return. The Gamecocks applied the dagger quickly: Tailback Pharoh Cooper connected with Brandon Wilds for a 26-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 31-17 with 3:44 to play.
“Those two turnovers were huge,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “The last one with Adam, it was a touchdown game, we’ve moved the ball all night. We give it right back to them, they capitalize. Those 14 points, that killed us.”
“Four turnovers," Swinney added, “two in plus territory, two on punt returns. Those were the difference in the game. No question about it.”
Clemson also must learn how to handle mobile quarterbacks and get off the field on third down. A year ago, the Gamecocks converted 11 of 21 third downs. Clemson’s third-down defense appeared to be much-improved this fall. The Tigers entered the game allowing opponents to convert only 29.6 percent of third-down opportunities, sixth best in the nation.
Saturday, however, it was second verse, same as the first. South Carolina converted 10 of 19 third-down tries.
Senior quarterback Connor Shaw rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts, completing 14 of 26 passes for 152 yards and another touchdown.
Shaw missed last season’s win with a foot injury, but his night was very similar to his 2011 performance against Clemson. He posted 107 yards rushing and a touchdown on 19 attempts. Through the air, Shaw passed for 210 yards and three scores.
“It’s very frustrating,” Swinney said. “It’s not like we didn’t know they were going to run the quarterback draw. We worked hard on defending it, got to see the gaps, they blocked us and missed a few tackles. Some of the plays were pass plays, some were called draws. It’s very disappointing we didn’t do a better job of stopping the quarterback.”
Clemson against everyone but USC and FSU: 44.8 points per game. USC/FSU: 17 ppg. 10 of 22 turnovers against those 2.— Greg Wallace (@gc_wallace) December 1, 2013
Clemson completed its third consecutive 10-win season, but it felt incomplete.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Boyd said. “It sums up the story every year. You can’t do that and win games.”
To break through against the Gamecocks, Clemson must give itself a chance. The Tigers’ defense needs to get off the field and allow offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ system room to thrive. At the same time, Morris’ players need to take better care of the ball.
For Clemson, there is plenty of blame to go around and another year’s worth of time to stew over an opportunity lost.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained firsthand by the author.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace