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November 24, 2012
The Big Chill
CLEMSON -- Clemson's fleet of dazzling skill players spent most of the second half on the sideline beside a heater.
The cold, hard reality: There was nowhere else for them to go with South Carolina's shorthanded offense sucking the soul out of the Tigers with long, clock-killing drives in administering a 27-17 defeat.
The Gamecocks walked into Death Valley on Saturday night and won their fourth consecutive game over Clemson, their longest streak in the series since 1954.
The previous three defeats were all excruciating, and they were all more decisive. But this one topped those in the misery it inflicted. Clemson fans were confident in a victory as they packed this stadium, but they ended up seeing a backup quarterback and backup running backs play a devastating game of keep-away from the Tigers' supercharged offense.
Clemson's offense didn't hold up well against South Carolina's stifling defense, but it's hard to move the ball when you don't have it. The Gamecocks won because they held the ball for 40 minutes to Clemson's 20.
The Tigers ran 102 plays in last week's 62-48 win over N.C. State. They ran 59 on Saturday night - and just 19 after halftime.
That was really the story of the game. And the story of this 10-win season will take on a decidedly more disappointing tone as a result of yet another loss to the program Clemson is traditionally used to dominating.
Dabo Swinney, who beat South Carolina in 2008 in his last game as an interim coach, was asked after this one if the Gamecocks enjoy any particular kind of edge against his program.
"They've won four in a row - that's the edge," he said. "They lined up and beat us on the field. That's the way it is."
This game gave Clemson a chance to prove its big-time credentials, an opportunity to show up the doubters who say the Tigers have done little more than fatten up on weak competition. Fans came into the game enchanted with the thought of going to New Orleans and playing in a BCS game, but those hopes absorbed a devastating hit in a nationally-televised audition.
And it made it all the more painful that the defeat was administered by Steve Spurrier, who had cast a number of barbs at Swinney and Clemson over the past couple of months. Spurrier surpassed Rex Enright as the Gamecocks' all-time winningest coach, and he did it against the team that owned South Carolina from the late 1970s until the current streak.
Spurrier lost three of his first four tries against the Tigers but is now 5-3 against his chief rival.
"He's done a great job," Swinney said of Spurrier. "Coach has been a winning coach for a long time. He's obviously one of the best that's ever coached. He's done an outstanding job at South Carolina. There's no doubt about it. They've recruited well, and they've been as good on defense as anybody out there. And they've had some big wins."
Spurrier's latest big win was achieved at the expense of a defense that everyone knew wasn't very good coming in. But conventional thinking held that the Tigers' chances of stopping the Gamecocks went up with injured Connor Shaw on the sideline.
Dylan Thompson, a sophomore who hadn't done much of anything against major competition, did just about whatever he wanted against Clemson. He passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns on a 23-of-41 clip. He wasn't known as a mobile quarterback, but he ended up gaining 73 yards on the ground (his net total was 38 yards with four sacks factored in).
Thompson and his mates blistered the Tigers on third-down conversions. He threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Ace Sanders on third-and-16 early in the third quarter, culminating a 10-play, 80 yard drive to give the Gamecocks a 17-14 lead on their first possession.
And then, late in the fourth quarter with Clemson feeling lucky to be down just three, Thompson delivered a dagger on third-and-19 from the Tigers' 20. He ran a draw for 20 yards to siphon the remaining life out of the capacity crowd.
"I expected a zone defensive look, but they were in man," Thompson said. "So since the receivers were blocking great downfield, I just took off. It was just a great play call by coach."
Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the 6, he ended it by going to his second read and finding Bruce Ellington open over the middle for a touchdown.
Clemson's offense seemed just fine in the first quarter after scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions. The Tigers were up 14-7, they were running the ball to neutralize the Gamecocks' withering pass rush, and the defense was holding up fairly well.
They felt reasonably well up 14-10 at halftime, but they couldn't capitalize on good field position on their last two possessions of the first half. Both times, they had the ball at midfield. The opportunities ended with a punt and an interception by Tajh Boyd, who added another interception early in the fourth quarter with Clemson down three. He finished with 183 yards passing and a touchdown while completing 11 of 24 passes.
Boyd's second interception was big because it followed a Xavier Brewer interception in the end zone that snuffed out a scoring threat. The Gamecocks took over at their 35 and commenced the 13-play scoring drive that sent Clemson fans to the exits.
The Tigers' offensive line couldn't handle Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the Gamecocks' defensive line in the second half. Clowney finished with 4.5 of South Carolina's sacks, and the pressure seemed to make Boyd more jittery than usual in the pocket.
Chad Morris won't have much film to watch from a second half that brought torture to him and his offense. They could do little more than watch from the sideline and try to keep warm.
"This hurts," Morris said. "This stings. And there ain't no doubt about it. It's something we all have to live with.
"This is the one we've been circling. I'm not going to lie to you. It hurts."
*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.