In every press conference, Bowden did his best Lou Holtz impersonation by constantly building up the opposition. He made it seem as though Steve Spurrier, the first-year coach of the Gamecocks, was practically unbeatable.
Well, as it turned out, the new coach left with the exact same result as the previous one did as Clemson scored the game’s only touchdown late in the fourth quarter to get the 13-9 victory over No. 9 South Carolina Saturday in front of 83,368 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
It marks fourth straight win by the Tigers in the heated rivalry and the eighth win in the last nine meetings. Clemson finishes the regular season with a three-game winning streak to end up 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the ACC. The Gamecocks also finish the season 7-4.
“I don’t think it’d be domination,” Tigers coach Tommy Bowden said. “I know those statistics are kind of impressive, but you sure don’t anticipate that. I believe next year we won’t have any trouble televising this game.”
Clemson’s game-winning drive was one for the ages. After two consecutive penalties, the Tigers faced a first-and-35 from their own 22. And rather than panic and go for it in one big pass, they opted to try and pick up the yardage on three plays.
The first play was a nine-yard pass to tailback James Davis to set up a second-and-26 from the 31. Next came a 14-yard pass to Chansi Stuckey to make it third-and-12 at the 45 to set up one of the major plays of the game.
Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst took the snap and hit Curtis Baham on an out route for a gain of 28 yards to spot it at the South Carolina 27, which appeared to take all the wind out of the Gamecocks’ sail.
“You can only get it one play at a time,” Tigers offensive coordinator Rob Spence said. “That’s what I admire our players for doing. They played it one play at a time and they executed the plays that we called to near perfection at that point in the game.”
The very next play with South Carolina still reeling from the first down, Davis busted it up the middle for a gain of 23 yards to give the Tigers first-and-goal at the 4. Two plays later, Davis crossed the goal line on a two-yard run to give Clemson its first lead of the game with 5:58 left to play.
“At first I didn’t think I was going to get in there, so I took it outside and just tried to give it all I could,” Davis said of his touchdown.
James Davis’ 2-yard run with 5:58 left to play was the game’s only touchdown and it put the Tigers up for the first time all night.
It was then up to the defense to stop the Gamecocks from scoring a touchdown, which it had all game.
Just 20 seconds after Davis’ touchdown, Clemson’s C.J. Gaddis intercepted a Blake Mitchell pass, however Gamecocks receiver Sidney Rice stripped him and his teammate Kris Clark recovered it to give South Carolina a first down at its own 39.
The Gamecocks moved it 17 yards and faced a third-and-3 at the Clemson 43, but tailback Mike Davis was tackled for a three-yard loss to set up fourth-and-6 at the 46. On that play, nose guard Rashaad Jackson tipped Mitchell’s pass and defensive end Charles Bennett intercepted it.
“We were saying that we want to win it on defense,” Bennett said. “I had the opportunity to make the interception and things fell our way. We kept fighting all night and it paid off in the end.”
By keeping the Gamecocks without a touchdown, it marked the ninth straight quarter the defense hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown. And the coaches for eight of those quarters are Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Spurrier.
“To do something like that, it’s never one thing,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “It’s the good Lord looking after you, getting lucky, happen to have some breaks.”
Earlier in the quarter, the defense stepped up again and may have saved the game when Stuckey muffed the punt and South Carolina recovered it at the Tigers 10.
It seemed a foregone conclusion that the Gamecocks would finally score a touchdown, especially since they led the SEC in percentage of scoring touchdowns when entering the red zone.
However, South Carolina wound up losing two yards on three plays and had to settle for a field goal to break tie and take a 9-6 lead with 10:46 left to play.
“That was huge, absolutely enormous,” Koenning said of holding them to three points. “That was the No. 1 red zone touchdown scoring offense in the SEC. I was really proud of our guys. That was probably the single biggest series of the season in my mind right now, without a doubt.”
Following Bennett’s interception, South Carolina had only one timeout and all Clemson needed to do to secure the win was gain one first down. With a third-and-9, Whitehurst ran a quarterback draw for 10 yards and that was ball game.
“I knew if I could just get past the line of scrimmage, I’d have a great chance to make the first down,” Whitehurst said. “The line did good and blocked every gap and it just worked out great.”