South Carolina Football: 5 Keys to Success Against the Clemson Tigers
South Carolina. Clemson. The Battle for the Palmetto State is here.
The Gamecocks and Tigers will face off this weekend when a pair of 9-2 teams fight for that 10th win on the season and "bragging rights" until the next year's matchup.
South Carolina has won the past two meetings in convincing fashion and hope there will be a third straight victory this Thanksgiving weekend.
For that to happen, South Carolina will have to accomplish a few things during the game this weekend.
Here's a look at a few keys for a Gamecock victory this Saturday over the Clemson Tigers.
Contain the Playmakers on Clemson's Offense
Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington have made a name for themselves this season with their impressive play for the Clemson Tigers. Both players are a big part of their run to help capture the ACC Atlantic and have a chance at an ACC Championship in a few weeks.
South Carolina's defense will have to focus on keeping these two players in check if they hope to have a chance at victory.
Andre Ellington has had some big plays from the running back position. He's rushed 871 yards so far this season with nine touchdowns. He has 19 runs over 10-plus yards and seven runs of 20-plus yards.
He has a long run of 74 yards this season. He's a running back similar to C.J. Spiller in that he'll break one for 50 yards in an instant and flip the momentum of the game towards the Tigers.
Sammy Watkins is at the forefront when it comes to the most impressive freshman in the 2011 football season. He's gained 1,034 yards on 68 catches in just 10 games. He has 16 catches over 20-plus yards and has 10 touchdowns this season. He averages over 100 yards receiving per game. He's also a threat in the return game with 661 return yards on 25 returns with one touchdown. The speed is on display with this true freshman.
Not only does Clemson have Watkins and Ellington, they also have a talented tight end in Dwayne Allen, another receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and of course, quarterback Tajh Boyd.
This offense averages 465 yards a game and 35.1 points per game. Pretty big numbers compared to where they were a year ago. New offensive coordinator Chad Morris is a big reason for the turnaround.
Clemson's offense seems driven by big plays. If South Carolina can find a way to keep the Tigers in front of them and not allow someone like Watkins to get behind them for a big gain, then that will be a huge benefit for the Gamecocks. You almost have to play a "bend but don't break" type of defense against Clemson. Coach Ellis Johnson probably won't mind giving up some yards if that meant trading touchdowns for field goals with the Clemson Tigers.
Hopefully, the Gamecocks will be up to the challenge.
Establish the Running Game
South Carolina is at its best this season when it's able to run the football.
The game plan shouldn't be any different this weekend for the Gamecocks as they should focus on getting the running game involved against Clemson.
Freshman Brandon Wilds has been able to pick up the run game for the Gamecocks in his four starts. He's got three 100-yard games to his credit so far and is using a hard-nosed running style that we've become accustomed to since Marcus Lattimore stepped foot on campus. His vision has enabled him to gain the extra yards when finding the right holes on the line to break through for South Carolina.
The Gamecocks also have a lethal threat in quarterback Connor Shaw. His most recent game against The Citadel saw the sophomore quarterback rush for 90 yards including a 60-yard touchdown run where he showcased the speed. He's got a knack for gaining yards when a play breaks down, and this could come in handy this weekend. He seemed to do this against the Florida Gators, and it was a big help in keeping Carolina drives alive.
Clemson's defense is susceptible to the run. They've given up over 184 yards per game this season on the ground to their opponents. Georgia Tech was able to run for 383 yards in their first loss of the season while Maryland ran for 291 in a comeback win for the Tigers. Wofford and Auburn ran over 235 yards a piece in their games with Clemson this season.
This needs to be a focus for the Gamecocks for two reasons this game:
First off, the running game is South Carolina's identity this year. It gives them a chance to get settled into the game and open up the passing game if Clemson gets lulled into placing more defenders in the box. This should give USC a chance to throw the ball downfield and hopefully get a mismatch in a one-on-one situation with receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Secondly, an established run game chews down the clock and keeps the opposing offense off the field. Clemson's offense is a high-scoring, big-play threat so the less opportunities they have to touch the football the better for South Carolina.
USC has the two longest drives in the SEC this season, and they should look to try and do the same this weekend.
South Carolina knows the running game is key to their success. Look for the Gamecocks to try and get it going early in this football game.
Protect Connor Shaw at All Costs
South Carolina's Gloved Wonder needs a little help from his big friends up front for the Gamecocks to have a chance against Clemson.
The offensive line woes are well-established across the Gamecock Nation. Most fans know of the struggles in pass protection for the USC quarterbacks over the years. This is still the case this season, and it's seen our young quarterback turn to the run much quicker than he or coach Steve Spurrier would have hoped for.
Shaw suffered a minor concussion against Arkansas after his right tackle gave way to Jake Bequette in a late fourth-quarter sack. He's taken some hits this season thanks to some pitiful pass protection. Clemson will be licking their chops hoping to get after South Carolina's quarterback.
South Carolina can't afford to lose Connor Shaw to injury against Clemson. The offense has struggled to produce big numbers at times, but he's kept them in most games even orchestrating a come-from-behind win against Mississippi State in the closing minutes. He's the best option they've got to beat the Clemson Tigers.
Backup options are Dylan Thompson and Andrew Clifford who both have very little game experience right now. It's tough to say they would be able to lead this Carolina offense the way Connor Shaw has since becoming the starter.
Mike Matulis has stepped in at the right-tackle spot for USC and been serviceable the past two games so his progress is certainly encouraging. USC will need leadership from T.J. Johnson and Terrance Campbell to get some push up front on Clemson.
Andre Branch is the main threat at defensive end for Clemson with 8.5 sacks on the season so he'll be a matchup to watch. The Tigers have 20 sacks this season so they've done a solid job of bringing down the quarterback.
USC will need to limit the sacks against Clemson and give Connor Shaw a chance to throw if they hope to get past Clemson on Saturday.
Win the Turnover Margin
Clemson's offense has lost the turnover battle the last three games they've played, and this is something South Carolina's defense needs to focus on this weekend.
The last three games have seen Clemson turn the ball over a total 11 times with their opponents giving up only two. They have four turnovers against Georgia Tech and NC State, which were both losses for Clemson. They only had eight turnovers in the first eight games of the season. It's easy to see why Clemson has struggled the last three games.
This has got to be an advantage for South Carolina. Clemson's playing sloppy football right now, and the Gamecocks are one of the nation's best in takeaways this season. Currently, the Gamecocks are ranked No. 6 in the NCAA for turnovers gained with 29 this season. They are fourth in the NCAA with 17 interceptions this season and 17th in the NCAA with 12 fumble recoveries.
The ball-hawking Gamecocks will have their eyes on Tajh Boyd this weekend. He's thrown six interceptions in those last three games with two in each contest against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and NC State.
Clemson lost two of those three games and was a field goal away from going to overtime with Wake. Boyd's inefficiency is certainly a reason for Clemson's recent slide and a secondary with 17 interceptions like South Carolina's will look to get a few turnovers themselves.
USC will need a big game from Stephon Gilmore and Antonio Allen this weekend. Gilmore will most likely be matched up with Sammy Watkins so he'll have a tough task at hand. Allen has been all over the field for USC this year and may be needed more in pass coverage this weekend. He has been great for USC this weekend, and another big performance could give the Gamecocks an edge against Clemson.
Turnovers are a big part of football, and the Gamecocks should look to create a few in their favor this Saturday.
Clemson has had a knack for making "The Comeback" this season against several teams.
The Tigers were down by 14 points twice to Auburn, 18 points to Maryland and 14 to Wake Forest only to make a comeback to win each of those games. The resiliency of Clemson has been impressive this year and something South Carolina needs to be aware of on Saturday.
South Carolina has only scored first in one game this season but still has a 9-2 record. They obviously don't get down on themselves after giving up an early lead. It wouldn't be surprising to see Clemson score first against South Carolina this weekend. The important thing for USC is to make sure to keep fighting all the way till the end even if they build a big win.
As seen this season, large leads against Clemson can be overcome by the Tigers. South Carolina needs to be aware of this heading into the game. An offense like Clemson's is capable of scoring points at will, and a large deficit can disappear in a hurry.
South Carolina has a defense that's capable of holding a large lead against Clemson if they are able to build one. I also think this defense is capable of holding a small lead after their performance in close games this year.
USC has had double-digit wins the last two matchups with Clemson, but nothing is ever safe in a rivalry game. So be on the lookout if the Gamecocks build a large lead to see how they respond against this Tiger offense.