For the first time in recent memory, South Carolina has defeated Clemson four seasons in a row. In all four games, the Gamecocks won by double digits and got stronger as the game went on.
This year's narrative was all about Clemson's (allegedly) prolific offense against South Carolina's battle tested defense. Early it looked like Clemson's offense might put up some points, but that spark proved to be ephemeral. South Carolina's defensive scheme was solid, and it limited the Tigers' success all night. The early points they scored were mostly the result of poor tackling and missed tackles. When that stopped, Clemson's offensive productivity stopped.
The Clemson offense was surprisingly unproductive. Where were the trick plays they ran against Florida State? Where was the effort to get players to the edge with the jet sweep or hitch passes to receivers? Was the game plan really to run Tajh Boyd in between the tackles? That's a strange strategy to employ with a player that doesn't like to be hit.
It seemed like Clemson's offense was too arrogant for its own good. They seemed to think they could run their base offense and be successful. That was foolhardy. They seemed to think that they would be able to run in between the tackles. That was puzzling. They seemed to think Tajh Boyd's running attack would be effective enough for the Gamecocks to bring safety help to the line. That wasn't ever a possibility. They seemed to think they could block Jadeveon Clowney one on one. That was crazy and dumb. Clemson's inability to accurately evaluate their offense, its strengths and weaknesses in comparison to South Carolina's defense was the number one reason they scored a mere 17 points.
South Carolina's offense on the other hand didn't have that same arrogance. Playing without the starting tailback and without the starting quarterback was no cause for confidence. But then Dylan Thompson treated the Tiger defense like they were East Carolina. Thompson's MO is that he will drop back, read and throw, and he didn't disappoint Saturday night. When he torched ECU early in the season with that approach I wrote that his quick trigger might not work as well against elite defenses. When he came in in the second half against Florida, it looked like my comment was accurate. Saturday night's performance means one of two things. Either Thompson is improving (which would be expected with more reps and experience) or Clemson's defense is more like East Carolina's than Florida's. I think both may be true.
Thompson's game should become one of the legends of the rivalry. A backup quarterback gets the start, throws for 300+ yards and wins the 4th in a row. He is presumed to be immobile, but he makes huge key plays with his feet. He gets the ball into his playmakers hands, and they take it from there. Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington were instrumental with their receiving. Kenny Miles picked up almost every blitz that came his way to allow the passes to be thrown.
The offensive line picked up the blitzes as well. They are still a work in progress to be sure, but they battled all night Saturday. Marcus Lattimore helped mask some of the line's deficiencies with his talent, and without Connor Shaw in the game it was clear that Shaw's mobility was masking some other weaknesses. All of the shortcomings were laid bare without either of those safety blankets, and still the Gamecocks put up 444 yards of total offense. That is directly attributable to the mindset instilled in the line by Shawn Elliott.
Special teams had one of their better games of the season. The kickoff strategy was perfect. Every time USC kicked, it was a touchback. There was no chance for a momentum changing return. Meanwhile USC returned the ball well both on kicks and on punt returns. Ace Sanders nearly broke his return for a score but slipped on the Memorial Stadium turf. Adam Yates was clutch on his field goals which were both crucial.
The Gamecocks played like a cohesive team, but there are still individual players whose performances deserve highlighting. Dylan Thompson and Adam Yates have already been mentioned, but there are others. Kenny Miles is great against Clemson. He had some tough runs including a key third down run on a sprained knee, but he was more important in the passing game. His blocking make most of the plays possible. Jadeveon Clowney set a stadium record and a presumed Carolina record with 4.5 sacks in a game. That's a season for good players, and he did it in a game. DeVonte Holloman had another interception against Clemson. That is 3 in 4 years. That's a nice line.
Clemson may feel like they are getting closer, but Carolina won with the same blueprint as the past three years....
1. The Gamecocks defense shuts down the Clemson offense.
2. The Clemson QB is pressured.
3. USC dominates the lines.
4. USC's offense holds the ball and grinds out the game.
5. The longer the game goes, the stronger Carolina gets.
Those 5 were all true last night and for the last four years. There's no reason it can't continue.