CLEMSON - The Clemson offense didn't exactly hum along at a high rate of success during the 27-17…
The Gamecocks have terrific players, and they're well-coached. They're better at what they do than Clemson is at what it does.
Saturday's 27-17 victory was another example of that, and it beat home the point that the Gamecocks have climbed ahead of the Tigers in all facets of the game.
The Gamecocks were better on offense, rolling up 444 yards, and on defense, shutting down Clemson's high-powered attack and holding the Tigers to 328 yards. And they were better on special teams. Can someone explain why Clemson's kickers can't get kickoffs to the end zone or why the Tigers struggle to cover kickoffs or punts?
South Carolina was the better team Saturday night, and it's a better program right now. And it doesn't look like it's going to change any time soon.
The Gamecocks made the Tigers look bad with a backup quarterback running their offense. But Dylan Thompson was poised and collected and made the right decisions, while Tajh Boyd looked like a backup thrust into a big game. Boyd started well, but he was out of sync after the first quarter, and he threw two terrible interceptions that hurt any momentum his offense could have had.
He finished the night 11-of-24 for 183 yards and can kiss any chance of going to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation goodbye. He looked rattled after the first quarter and just couldn't get anything going. Clemson had 163 yards in the first quarter but just 165 after that.
Thompson, on the other hand, looks like he's going to be a terrific quarterback in the future, and Clemson might actually have been better off facing Connor Shaw, who didn't play because of an injury. Clemson got little pressure on Thompson, and he picked apart the Tigers' lost secondary (a frustrating theme of this season), completing 23-of-41 passes for 310 yards and rushing for 38 yards.
GETTING OFF THE FIELD: The Tigers simply didn't get many chances on offense, and they didn't do much with the chances they got.
South Carolina made sure of that, controlling the pace of the game and dominating the Tigers physically for the fourth straight year.
South Carolina ran 86 plays and had the ball for 39:58 while Clemson ran just 59 plays in 20:02, including just 6:41 in the second half.
A key to that was third-down success. Clemson's defense played OK, if you look at the scoreboard. The Tigers' defense did give up just 27 points, but when the defense needed to make a play to get off the field and try to give the ball back to the offense, it just couldn't do it. South Carolina converted 11-of-21 attempts on third down and its one attempt on fourth down. Clemson was just 5-of-12 on third down.
When the Tigers blitzed in those situations, the Gamecocks were ready. When Clemson dropped into coverage, South Carolina was ready. South Carolina seemed ready for anything Clemson came up with, and it took advantage of its chances when it had them.
The result was the Tigers' defenders wore down and continued to struggle getting off the field, and the offense didn't get many chances. And that limited Clemson's offensive weapons, especially after the first quarter.
DeAndre Hopkins did have a long touchdown catch in the first quarter, but that was his only catch, and he had several drops. Was Sammy Watkins even on the field? It was hard to tell, since he had just four catches for 37 yards and didn't even get any chances running the ball. You would think a player with that kind of talent would be a bigger part of the game plan in such an important game.
But the Gamecocks took him away, and they took away anything, really, that Clemson wanted to do.
AVOIDING THE PRESSURE: Clemson had some success running the ball, and Andre Ellington had a good night. But he finished with just 15 carries for 72 yards. Roderick McDowell added three carries for 47 yards as the Tigers finished with 35 carries for 145 yards.
Boyd had 17 carries for just 26 yards and was pressured by the Gamecocks' defensive front throughout the night.
That goes back to the game plan. A strong running game or a short passing game could have kept some pressure off Boyd, but we didn't see much of that from the Tigers.
The Gamecocks had six sacks, including 4.5 by standout defensive end Jadaveon Clowney, who dominated the game. That shouldn't be a surprise. He's a great player, the kind of player an offensive attack needs to account for, to build a game plan around and to use a running game to attack or to use quick, short passes to avoid allowing him time to get pressure.
But that didn't seem to be part of the plan, or the Tigers just didn't get a chance to show that part of the plan because they weren't on the field enough to do so.
WHAT ABOUT THE SEASON? The Tigers have won 10 games this season, and it's a step forward to do that for two straight years. But they lost to the two good teams they played -- Florida State and South Carolina -- and we're not even really sure how good Florida State is. The Seminoles are similar to the Tigers. They beat up on a lot of bad ACC teams, but once they played a strong SEC team, they were shut down Saturday. Florida dominated Florida State, and South Carolina dominated Clemson yet again. That's not a good sign for either ACC program or the conference.
Clemson did a lot of good things this season, and Saturday's loss doesn't erase those. But it certainly takes some shine off all the offensive records and any defensive progress the team made. Critics will wonder just how legitimate all those offensive numbers are after watching Chad Morris' players get pushed around by the Gamecocks for the second straight year.
They also will wonder about any defensive improvements that were made after watching Brent Venables' players again give up big plays, miss tackles and struggle to get off the field in key situations.
Clemson's season has been a positive one, but there are big improvements that need to be made for the program to take the next step. Most notably, the offensive and defensive lines need to get more physical, and the defense needs to find some – any – playmakers. There were plays to be made Saturday in key situations, and the defense, especially the secondary, just couldn't get it done. There is a huge talent upgrade needed in the defensive backfield and on the offensive and defensive lines, and that only comes with increased recruiting efforts at those positions.
There's no doubt Swinney's program is better than the one he inherited, but it's a good program, not a great one. And it's not to the level of Spurrier's program. That's hard to take for Clemson fans because they've never had to think that way about their rival.
But that's the truth right now. Four straight losses, all in dominant fashion, don't lie.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley
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